SHREVEPORT, La. — The Independence Bowl doesn’t mean anything to the Missouri football team. It means everything.
The Tigers haven’t been to a bowl since the 1998 Insight.com Bowl, so it would make sense if they were just happy to be involved. They could have easily come to Shreveport, enjoyed the gifts the bowl gives them and taken in the sights.
Instead, MU has made it a point of emphasis to do more than show up. When Missouri plays Arkansas tonight at 6:30 at Independence Stadium, the Tigers will have one thing on their mind, winning.
Coach Gary Pinkel said it doesn’t matter how it happens as long as it does.
“I want to win any game I can,” Pinkel said. “I don’t care how. The bottom line is winning.”
MU enters the game in search of many milestones. Quarterback Brad Smith has the opportunity to become the first player in NCAA history to accrue 1,000 rushing and 2,000 passing yards in two seasons. He is 178 passing yards short of the mark. Smith needs 147 yards of offense to break Jeff Handy’s career record of 6,640 yards and 231 yards to break the season mark of 3,362 he set in 2002.
A.J. Ricker will extend his consecutive starts record to 47 in his final game as a Tiger. Tailback Zack Abron owns the school’s career scoring and rushing records and can add to those.
All of those impressive statistics aside, there is only one number that matters to Missouri, nine. As in nine wins, a number the Tigers haven’t reached since 1969. It would be the third time Missouri has won nine games.
Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus said the opportunity to reach the nine-win milestone should help keep Missouri focused on winning.
“I think it is a great achievement,” Eberflus said. “If we can get to that nine wins, it puts us in the elite part of Mizzou history. It doesn’t get any bigger for our program right now where it is at than to get to that level.”
The Independence Bowl earned a reputation as a “steppingstone” game in 1999 when Oklahoma lost to Mississippi a year before winning the national championship. A win for Missouri might not make it an immediate national title contender heading into next season, but it could be a boost to a rising program.
Pinkel said it drives his players crazy, but he is thinking about what kind of springboard a bowl win could be.
“After this game is over, win or lose, we go back to work and just try to make our program better,” Pinkel said. “I’m excited about next year already. I’m excited about where we are going to be.”
Some Missouri players won’t be around to bear the fruits of their labors. Team leaders such as Ricker, Rob Droege and Brandon Barnes will play in their final game for MU.
Ricker agreed with Pinkel’s assessment about the bowl appearance’s impact on the future, but also wants it for himself and the guys who stayed in the program with him.
“Something we want is to get this ninth win for these seniors who have gone through all this adversity,” Ricker said. “For the all of these underclassmen that are coming back, that ninth win could be huge.”
Cornerback Terrence Curry, who could be eligible for another season if he chooses to apply, echoed Ricker’s sentiments. Ricker and Curry are part of the small group of 23 players from the 1999 and 2000 recruiting classes that stayed at Missouri after Pinkel took over the program.
Curry said that makes what could be his final game and first bowl game even more important.
“It’s something you can talk about for the rest of your life,” Curry said. “It’s an opportunity that is right in front of you and you don’t get those opportunities that much so we have got to take advantage of that.”