Gary Pinkel’s memory serves him well. That’s why he isn’t sleeping well this week.
Pinkel knows all too well how easily an NCAA Division I-AA team can sneak up on a Division I team, and as he prepares for Missouri’s home opener against Eastern Illinois on Saturday, he has good reason to be nervous.
“I’m scared to death of everybody,” Pinkel said Monday. “I didn’t sleep last night, if that makes you feel better.”
The Panthers (1-0) nearly upset Pinkel’s Toledo team in 2000, getting to the Toledo 7 before time expired, and the Rockets escaped with a 31-26 win. That was two weeks after the Rockets won 24-6 at Penn State.
Pinkel hasn’t brought up that game with his players, but its memory has helped him understand the importance of preparing his players for a challenge Saturday.
“I don’t really go back with my players on that, and my players don’t know anything about that,” Pinkel said. “We’re focusing on preparation and respect, and it’s my job to get them ready to play.”
Eastern Illinois coach Bob Spoo hasn’t mentioned the 2000 meeting with Pinkel to his players, either. He hasn’t had to.
“I haven’t told them yet, but a couple of guys that are key players for us played in that game,” Spoo said. “They remember that, I think, so it might have gotten around through word of mouth.”
Pinkel acknowledges what it would mean to a program such as Eastern Illinois if it were able to upset a major conference team such as Missouri, but he said he couldn’t imagine a scenario in which the Panthers want and need to win the game more than the Tigers. Missouri (2-0) needs the win to start 3-0 for the first time in 22 years.
“As we’re building this program, not having won three games (to start the season)since 1981 is a remarkable statement,” Pinkel said. “But on the same token, I’m part of the problem because a year ago, we’d won two and went to Bowling Green and got beat. So you can throw me right in there.”
Missouri free safety Nino Williams II said the Tigers understand the importance of getting off to a good start and taking control of the game early.
“With a team like this, you can’t be content with playing good, good, good and then let something big happen,” Williams said. “Teams like this, they go off momentum. As long as we don’t give them the momentum from the first whistle to the last whistle, we’ll be all right.”
Missouri’s ability to get off to a quick start might depend on quarterback Brad Smith’s health. Smith left Saturday’s game at Ball State in the second quarter after suffering a concussion. Pinkel said he doesn’t expect the depth chart to change from last week, but he wouldn’t elaborate on Smith’s injury.
Regardless of whether Smith is completely healthy, Spoo is worried about his ability to keep the defense guessing about whether he will pass or run.
“He can make you look silly out there,” Spoo said.
With Smith in the game, it would appear Missouri has a distinct advantage, but as Pinkel said, things aren’t always as they appear.
“A year ago at this time, we’d won two in a row and I thought I had these guys under control,” he said. “I didn’t. I didn’t get it done.”
With regard to whether his team would be able to overlook the inferiority of its opponent when preparing for the game, Pinkel said “mature competitors” prepare the same for every game, regardless of the opponent, the site, the weather, the crowd or any other factor.
“Now, that’s the mature competitor,” he said. “I would suggest that we have a cross-section of players who are maturing. So, it’s my job to make sure that we get that done. And that’s why I don’t sleep.”