During preseason, many experts predicted the winner of one game would have a stranglehold on the Big 12 North.
But the Missouri-Kansas State matchup at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium has dwindled to a matchup between two desperate teams trying to save their seasons.
Sole possession of first place in the Big 12 North and offensive confidence have vanished for the Tigers (4-4, 2-3 Big 12 Conference) after their three-game losing streak.
The Wildcats (3-5, 1-4) have a streak of 11 straight bowl games on the line, and a loss would ensure them of a losing record. Although not mathematically eliminated from the North title, the Tigers would need to win out and receive help to get there.
“When you lose two or three tough games like we did, there’s only one thing that’s going to make you feel better. That’s winning,” coach Gary Pinkel said. “There’s nothing else.”
The Tigers will have to beat a Big 12 nemesis to shake the three-game losing streak. The Wildcats have recently manhandled the Tigers, winning 11 straight. Included in that streak are three shutouts, a 66-0 loss in 1999 and a 38-0 loss in 2002, the most recent time the teams played in Columbia.
In last year’s matchup in Manhattan, Darren Sproles set a school record with 273 yards en route to a 24-14 win. Sproles continued his tremendous play the next week in the Big 12 Championship, leading the Wildcats to their first Big 12 title and a shocking 35-7 victory against then-No. 1 and undefeated Oklahoma.
This season hasn’t gone as well for Sproles, who entered the season as a Heisman Trophy candidate. He failed to hold on to the football early in the season, which caused the Wildcats to falter and rumors of a hand injury to appear. As he has started to play better, so have the Wildcats.
They opened Big 12 play with three straight losses but rebounded with a dominant 45-21 victory against Nebraska and stayed with Texas Tech last week before losing 35-25. Sproles averaged 109 rushing yards in those games and scored four times.
“He murdered us last year,” Pinkel said. “He just dominated our football team last year. We have a lot of respect for him, what a great player he is.”
As a result, Sproles, who broke his own record with a 292-yard performance earlier this season, represents a priority for the Tigers’ defense.
“Last year we weren’t really committed to stop the run,” defensive end Xzavie Jackson said. “He set a record, broke a record, whatever you want to call it. This year we’re really committed to stopping the run, so we’re going to go out here and try to shut him down and try to make the Wildcats one-dimensional.”
Making the Wildcats one-dimensional is easier said than done. The Tigers will have to prepare for two quarterbacks with slightly different playing styles. Sophomore Dylan Meier, who is listed as the starter on the depth chart, presents a considerable passing threat. He had a career game passing the ball in a gutsy, but failed, come-from-behind effort at Texas A&M. He completed 29 passes for 249 yards and three touchdowns.
Sophomore Allen Webb has also played and is a threat with his legs. He started against Nebraska and dominated the Cornhuskers’ defense. In the 45-21 home win, Webb compiled 147 yards and four touchdowns on 34 carries.
“You live to accomplish things you’ve never accomplished before,” defensive tackle C.J. Mosley said. “That’s one thing I’ve never done, is beat K-State, and that’s what I’m going to try my hardest to do.”
As important as stopping Sproles is, the Tigers’ offense must awake from a slump in which they haven’t scored a touchdown in six quarters.
“We’ve got to start running the ball,” offensive lineman Scott Paffrath said. “A big day running the ball will really help the confidence in the group. We got to open things up passing, but we need to run the ball well. Not being able to run last week is what killed us.”
The Tigers’ leading rusher, Damien Nash, returns to the field after a suspension that held him out of the Nebraska game. The Wildcats, though, have typically shut down the Tigers. Last year they allowed 109 yards to the Tigers, which was nearly 130 yards below their average.
They have been consistently tough on quarterback Brad Smith as well. In two games against the Wildcats, Smith has rushed for 30 yards and 26 yards, which are two of the five lowest totals of his career. Smith said Monday the Wildcats were one of the first teams to bring safeties near the line of scrimmage in an attempt to slow him.
The offense, though, wasn’t the only worry this week. Even though he had two days to calm down about it, Pinkel revealed Monday he remained upset with his special teams in the 24-3 loss at Nebraska. Without being provoked, he spoke at length about it.
“My biggest disappointment in Saturday’s game was to think I would coach a football team that would give up 14 points in the punting game,” he said. “You talk about embarrassing. You talk about an indictment against me as a football coach and on a program that builds itself, takes pride on one of the measurable probabilities of how you win games.
“You’re not going to win any games doing that. You don’t have a chance. You’ve got to be kidding me. Our offense was a lot more productive than theirs was, but they didn’t hand us 14 points.”