After a steady diet of dropback passers such as Jason White, B.J. Symons and Joel Klatt, the Missouri defense will see a quarterback reminiscent of Brad Smith on Saturday.
Reggie McNeal, Texas A&M’s athletic sophomore quarterback, presents the Tigers with a challenge they usually see only in practice: a quarterback with the ability to run and pass.
Missouri (6-3, 2-3 in the Big 12 Conference) is holding on to hopes of a North Division championship. To do so, the Tigers must win the rest of their games and hope for a Nebraska loss sometime in the next three weeks.
The Aggies (4-6, 2-4) are hanging on to their slim bowl hopes. Coming off a 77-0 loss to Oklahoma, they face the challenge of beating MU and Texas to become bowl eligible.
Texas A&M’s struggles are hardly the fault of the McNeal-led offense. The Aggies are averaging 26.7 points and 386.1 yards.
The McNeal and Smith comparisons are obvious. Both thrive on creating opportunities for themselves and teammates by using their speed to get out of the pocket.
Make no mistake, though, McNeal can pass as well as he can run. He has thrown for 1,539 yards and eight touchdowns this season.
Missouri outside safety Dedrick Harrington said McNeal is a far cry from the Big 12 quarterbacks MU has faced.
“He’s a great athlete,” Harrington said. “There’s many things you can do to prepare, but it comes down to trying to stop an athlete. He plays the quarterback position, but he’s an athlete.”
The Tigers got a brief look at what McNeal is capable of in their 33-27 overtime win a year ago. McNeal, making his first career start, completed four passes for 80 yards before leaving the game with an injured right foot early in the second quarter.
Because of McNeal’s injury, Smith got the better of him with 264 total yards and two touchdowns.
Coach Gary Pinkel said having Smith around gives his team an idea of what McNeal can do.
“He’s a player that can make a lot of plays,” Pinkel said. “We have one on our football team so we understand that. I’m afraid of him this year so I can’t imagine the next two years.”
Texas A&M will have a different appearance for more reasons than a healthy McNeal. After a 6-6 finish in 2002, the Aggies hired Dennis Franchione to rebuild a program that had grown stagnant on the national scene.
Franchione, who went to Texas A&M after successful stints at Texas Christian and Alabama, has gained a national reputation as one of the nation’s best coaches.
“Coach Franchione is as good a coach as there is in the country,” Pinkel said. “I was kind of disappointed he came into our league because we have a lot of good coaches in this league, and we don’t need another one.”
Franchione’s first season has been difficult. After two wins to start its season against Arkansas State and Utah, Texas A&M lost to Big East Conference powers Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh.
The Aggies recovered with a blowout win against Baylor and a victory against Kansas, but the loss to the Sooners is the kind of demoralizing loss that will make it hard for them to rebound.
At the heart of Texas A&M’s problems is a porous defense. The Aggies allow an average of 37.4 points and 423.7 yards. Those are the kind of numbers that have Smith and the MU offense champing at the bit.
Smith has accounted for 2,423 yards of offense and 23 touchdowns. Tailback Zack Abron complements Smith with 760 yards, 224 short of Brock Olivo’s Missouri record of 3,027.
“We will take their best shot,” Smith said. “A lot of people come here and want to beat us. From what happened last year, they have some guys who are looking forward to coming in here, so we expect a tough game.”
DROEGE HONORED: Offensive tackle Rob Droege received Academic All-District VII honors Thursday.
This is the third consecutive year Droege earned the honor.