The lofty goals, the great prognostications, the tremendous praise: All of it has vanished, and it all vanished in a familiar fashion.
A crippling 35-24 loss to Kansas State on Saturday at Memorial Stadium pushes the Tigers to the brink of missing a bowl and greatly damages their chances to play in the Big 12 Conference Championship. Missouri, which lost its 12th in a row to the Wildcats, has lost four straight for the first time since 2000.
“It’s terribly disappointing,” defensive tackle C.J. Mosley said. “I didn’t even conceive it as happening.”
Causing further heartache is that the Tigers (4-5, 2-4 Big 12) blew another large first-half lead. After squandering leads of 14 and 17 earlier in the season, the Tigers relinquished a 21-point lead.
Several players said Saturday they didn’t feel comfortable leading 21-0 and were complacent when they began the second half. When asked about what caused the second-half loss of focus, they could do little more than shrug their shoulders and shake their heads.
“(It’s) frustrating enough I want to bang my head into a wall,” offensive lineman Scott Paffrath said. “It’s just so far from what we believed was going to happen. It’s just tough to deal with.”
The Tigers blew their first big lead at Troy, when they let a 14-0 lead slip away in a 24-14 loss. Two weeks ago, the Tigers blew a 17-0 lead at home to Oklahoma State, losing 20-17.
Paffrath and the offense had everything working in the first half, but they couldn’t sustain it. The Tigers amassed 308 total yards in the first, moving the ball with tremendous ease at times. The offense, for the first time in weeks, produced a balanced game, gaining 152 on the ground and 157 through the air before halftime.
Wide receiver Sean Coffey caught two long touchdowns passes from quarterback Brad Smith. Running back Marcus Woods scored his first career touchdown on a 21-yard run. They connected on five of their nine third-down attempts.
Coffey’s second touchdown, a 31-yard reception with 7 minutes, 45 seconds left, pushed the lead to a seemingly safe 21-0.
Three-and-outs, though, replaced the efficiency in the second half. Needing a score to slow the furious Kansas State (4-5, 2-4) rally that had tied it at 21, the Tigers stalled on the goal line.
Poised with a first-and-goal on the Kansas State 6 after a Damien Nash 66-yard run, the Tigers ran three plays that earned nothing except a crescendo of boos from the 63,412 in attendance.
They settled for a 24-yard field goal to retake the lead, but it was short lived. With their next possession, the Wildcats went 62 yards in seven plays to go ahead 28-24. Allen Webb hit Antoine Polite down the middle of the field for a 20-yard touchdown.
The defense played as well, if not better, than the offense did in the first half. It forced Kansas State to go without a first down for its first six series, allowing 18 yards on those series. Starting quarterback Dylan Meier appeared shaken and confused by an aggressive game plan from the Tigers. His passes were consistently errant and he was nearly intercepted twice.
The shaky early play didn’t involve running back Darren Sproles, whom coach Gary Pinkel had expressed concern about stopping before the game. Pinkel’s midweek fears were realized as Sproles invigorated Kansas State with a superb second-half performance.
After accounting for 31 yards on nine touches in the first half, Sproles finished with 189 total yards, including 160 on the ground.
Sproles cut the deficit to 21-14 with an electrifying 74-yard run midway through the third quarter. He took a pitch going to right, and after the Tigers had strung the play out for a short gain, Sproles cut back and blew past a group of at least four Tigers who had overrun the play.
“That long run got everybody pumped up,” Webb said. “It got everybody into it. It got the defense into it. They started to play well. I think that was the turning point.”
The momentum-swinging play visibly energized the Wildcats. They held the Tigers to one first down on their next two possessions. Then after a 58-yard punt from Adam Crossett, Yamon Figurs gained great field position with a 54-yard return to the Missouri 42.
Seven plays later, Webb hit Jermaine Moreira on a wide receiver screen for an 8-yard touchdown.
“I wish my goals were still out there, but there’s nothing I can do about it,” Paffrath said. “We have to go after six (wins) now, but we can’t worry about six now. We’ve lost four games. We have to worry about one and then make it two.”
Said Pinkel: “I’ve been doing this for a long time, and my disappointment is beyond description.