Although his words are composed, as always, Missouri quarterback Brad Smith’s eyes light up when he talks about playing Ball State. A road game against a Mid-American Conference team for the second straight year means a chance for Smith to forget about the first year.
“It’s motivation,” Smith said. “I’m very motivated and very excited to play another team...”
Ball State isn’t Bowling Green, but it might as well be. The Tigers (1-0) go back to the MAC to face the Cardinals (1-0) at 3 p.m. Saturday. An MU win would give third-year coach Gary Pinkel, a former Toledo coach, his first season with a perfect record against his old conference.
The Tigers defeated Ball State 41-6 a year ago at Memorial Stadium, but MU lost to MAC member Bowling Green each of the past two years, including 51-28 in Ohio a year ago. Saturday’s game is the first time a major conference team has visited Ball State Stadium.
“I can’t see how that game is more important to them than it is to us,” Pinkel said. “The things we’re trying to do, the things we’re trying to build, the things we’re trying to get done … It has become a huge football game.”
Although Pinkel’s second team was improved from his first and his third group’s record could top both of the previous squads, he is concerned with steady performance. Losses to teams from mid-major conferences highlight the inconsistencies.
“You want to change how your players think,” Pinkel said. “You want to change how they act. You want to change how they compete. I think that’s all part of a transition that’s taking place and still taking place since the day we got here.”
Lack of turnovers and penalties, special teams play and avoiding mental errors are facets Pinkel expects from his players. A week ago against Illinois, all played a part in the Tigers’ 22-15 victory.
“I think our players are starting to understand the importance of all those things,” Pinkel said. “I think last year they were starting to understand.”
In his weekly press conference Monday, Pinkel, looking at times distraught despite his team’s win Saturday, shouldered all blame for his team’s streaky play in 2002.
“Quite frankly, I dropped the ball a year ago,” Pinkel said. “I didn’t do a very good job. I thought I did, but bottom line, I didn’t get it done.”
Although he won’t discuss what he says to his players before games, Pinkel is constantly teaching. In addition to its regular Tuesday afternoon practice, the team met at 7 a.m. that day to go over extra strategy.
“Learning how to win, learning how to play consistent, learning how to make sure you respect every opponent, because Ball State could beat us in a heartbeat,” Pinkel said.
The week after Bowling Green defeated the Tigers last season, it beat up on Kansas. A week ago, MAC member Northern Illinois upset then-No. 14 Maryland 20-13 in overtime.
Pinkel said part of the MAC’s success comes from the reduction of Division 1-A football scholarships from 95 per team to 85. In the 11-team Big Ten Conference, that means 110 more scholarship-worthy players are available to play at smaller schools, Pinkel said.
“They’re going somewhere, and most of them are going to the Mid-American Conference,” Pinkel said. “All of a sudden, all those guys should be in the Big Ten, now they’re going down there. They’ve also done a great job recruiting in the area.”
The Cardinals went 6-6 in 2002, and defeated Indiana State 31-7 on Saturday. Brady Hoke, the new Ball State coach, spent the previous eight years as an assistant at Michigan. Key Cardinal players include linebacker Lorenzo Scott, who has led the Cardinals in tackles the past three years, and quarterback Andy Roesch, who won the starting job halfway through last season.