For the first time in a while, tight end Martin Rucker didn’t think about football on a Saturday.
“Actually on Saturday, I didn’t watch any football,” Rucker said. “I didn’t really watch any football all weekend. I just took my bye day and slept.”
As a result, Rucker and the Tigers (4-5, 2-4 Big 12 Conference) are preparing for this weekend’s game against Kansas with a rejuvenated attitude. The Tigers will look to stop a four-game losing streak, which dropped them to fourth place in the Big 12 North.
“You can’t just get it out of your head,” Rucker said. “But with this week, we just tried to relax, not think about football and come back in here refreshed and try to go out focused and get this win this week.”
Rucker wasn’t the only one at Missouri’s weekly media day with a brighter outlook.
After the 35-24 home loss to Kansas State on Nov. 6, a disheartened Thomson Omboga, a senior wide receiver, stopped short of saying the goal of winning the Big 12 North had disappeared. He said Monday he feels “lucky and fortunate” that the Tigers’ still have a chance.
“We’re not down, by all means,” Omboga said. “We’re obviously disappointed in the way things have turned out, but we’re still confident, and we still want to get two more wins and get bowl eligible.”
Even though the team practiced Saturday, senior safety Jason Simpson said his legs feel replenished, a feeling several players and the coach expressed.
“I think it was good for us,” coach Gary Pinkel said. “I think it was good for us to get a couple days off for our players, maybe clear their heads a little bit. It’s been a tough month, October, and we also got to work on a lot of things. I felt it certainly was a positive.”
The Tigers haven’t won since Oct. 9 when they defeated Baylor 30-10 in Waco, Texas. Several problems, including fourth-quarter play and kicking, plagued their losses.
During the bye week, without an opponent for which to prepare, the Tigers used practice time to concentrate on those areas.
“We did in two of our practices, we doubled all our fundamental work on everything we do,” Pinkel said. “Obviously, you always try to work to correct your mistakes throughout every game, but a lot of times, you’re restricted to put significant amount of minutes into it just because you have to prepare for the next opponent.”
Fourth quarter struggles became increasingly apparent in the Tigers’ past two home losses. Kansas State outscored the Tigers 21-3 in the fourth two weeks after Oklahoma State posted 10 unanswered points. During the four-game losing streak, the Tigers have been outscored 45-9 in the fourth.
To counteract it, the Tigers simulate a “fourth quarter” segment of practice. The Tigers’ coaches sound an air horn twice, instead of the one blast that typically indicates a drill change. Simpson said during that segment of drills, errors decrease.
For the defense, decreasing errors means increasing turnovers.
“Especially in the fourth quarter, we extend the drill to where somebody gets the ball out,” Simpson said. “We have to get fourth-quarter takeaways.”
“It just makes you mentally tough. You don’t get a choice. You’ve got to go out there and do. That’s what you’re paid to do, and that’s why we’re here. I think in the fourth quarter, it’s just that much more important, and you’ve got to have the mind-set set of, ‘I’m not going to be denied.’”
The losing streak has also altered the way Pinkel has tried to motivate his players.
“When you’re winning, you can do anything to them,” Pinkel said. “You can say anything you want. You can do anything you want to kids because their confidence level is so high.”
“That’s just the psychology of sports, but when they’re struggling …what you have to do is you have to be very complimentary. You have to be very positive, and that’s the way I’ve always dealt with these issues.”