Not one to use clichés, Missouri cornerback Calvin Washington came up with an analogy to describe the importance of Saturday’s game between Missouri and Kansas State.
“When it’s a game like this, and its for all the cookies and everything, you’ve got to be that bully that steps up and says, ‘I’m taking your cookies this time,’” Washington said. “Their cookies look a lot better than ours.”
For the past two seasons, Kansas State has been the playground bully that took Missouri’s lunch money, its lunch and just about everything else. The Tigers were on the brink of bowl eligibility each of the past two seasons when the Wildcats came calling and snatched away Missouri’s bowl hopes, including a 38-0 thumping in Columbia to end the Tigers’ 2002 season.
This time, more is at stake. Both teams have locked up bowl berths and are playing for a spot in the Big 12 Conference championship game. If Kansas State wins, it solidifies the Big 12 North Division championship and a matchup with No. 1 Oklahoma on Dec. 6 in Kansas City. If Missouri pulls off the upset, it would need to beat Iowa State at home Nov. 29 to earn that distinction.
That Missouri is playing a meaningful game in November with a chance to reach the conference title game is a far cry from the program coach Gary Pinkel inherited before the 2001 season. For the seniors in the program, this is the most important game of their careers.
“There’s so much riding on this, so much more than any other game I’ve played,” senior tight end J.D. McCoy said. “I’ve never played a game this big.”
To win it, the Tigers will need to overcome several hurdles that have plagued them this season and throughout recent history. Missouri hasn’t won a conference road game this season and it hasn’t won in Manhattan, Kan., since 1989. The Tigers have lost 10 straight to the Wildcats dating back to 1992.
If Missouri has learned anything, though, it’s that the past is that: the past. The Tigers wiped out a 25-year losing streak against Nebraska earlier this season, and they’re not about to let a rocky recent history against Kansas State deter them from this opportunity.
“You don’t focus on what you haven’t done in the past, you focus on what you can do,” Pinkel said. “We look forward. We understand this is certainly a very difficult task, but what a great opportunity for this program and for these players to experience this.”
On paper, the edge goes to Kansas State, mostly because of the Wildcats’ stingy defense, which ranks fifth in the nation in yards allowed. The offenses are comparable, with both leaning on the run, but the Wildcats have had more success passing than Missouri.
Kansas State’s offense is the blueprint for the balanced offense that Missouri strives to have. Running back Darren Sproles, quarterback Ell Roberson and wide receiver James Terry are the three-pronged attack that leads the Wildcats.
“They can give it to the running back, he’s dangerous,” Missouri cornerback Michael Harden said. “The quarterback can keep it, he’s dangerous. Then, he can put it in the air to Terry, and he’s dangerous. We’re gonna have to be clicking on all cylinders.”
At times, though, Missouri hasn’t needed the ability to pass, because the running game has done fine. Against Texas A&M on Saturday, the Tigers racked up 362 rushing yards en route to a 45-22 victory.
Leaning on that running game, which ranks sixth in the nation, might be the Tigers’ key to success against the Wildcats. Kansas State’s defense doesn’t have much of a weakness, but its weakest link is run defense.
If the Tigers can exploit the Wildcats’ run defense, it could mean a big day for sophomore quarterback Brad Smith, who went over 1,000 yards rushing for the second straight season against Texas A&M, and senior tailback Zack Abron, who needs 83 yards to pass Brock Olivo’s school record of 3,026 rushing yards.
The Tigers don’t hold many advantages against the Wildcats, but they have an edge in turnovers. Missouri has committed nine turnovers, the fewest in the nation, compared with the Wildcats’ 27 turnovers.
So, if Missouri can play bully and force some turnovers, and if the Tigers can eat up yards and clock with the running game, they might be feasting on those cookies Washington keeps talking about.
“They’ve got some nice bowl cookies that look real good,” Washington said. “They’re the key to where we need to be.”