It seemed like a comfortable situation. Missouri football coach Gary Pinkel stood on the sidelines Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, watching his team dominate a weaker opponent in Arkansas State.
Pinkel was comfortable enough that with 6:49 to go in the third quarter and the Tigers leading 37-0, he interrupted senior quarterback Brad Smith’s demolition of the Indians. He replaced Smith with freshman Chase Daniel, a heralded high school recruit who was named Smith’s backup five days earlier.
Pinkel didn’t want to see Smith get injured in an already-decided game and also wanted to get Daniel some experience in a collegiate game. But then he watched Daniel run six plays over two possessions without getting a first down. He watched Daniel throw an interception in his third series.
Meanwhile, Arkansas State managed to get its offense together and score 17 unanswered points.
Pinkel had seen enough. He put Smith back in the game with 8:29 to play, hoping to end the Indians’ momentum and to put the game away for good. Smith did both, moving the offense 80 yards for a touchdown in just six plays and 1:37 of game time. The Tigers (1-0) rolled to victory, 44-17.
“I just got a little nervous,” Pinkel admitted with a smile after the game.
It was a bit of an awkward situation for Smith, who thought his day was done.
“They tell you you’re not playing anymore and then they come back and tell you to get ready,” he said, “but they let me know well enough in advance so that I could get ready.”
Smith easily put his coach’s nerves to rest. But for Daniel, making Pinkel anxious was one big learning experience.
“I think I did decent for a freshman,” Daniel said. “I had to come out there and get my feet wet a little bit.”
The first play of Daniel’s college career was a 3-yard pass over the middle to senior wide receiver Arnold Britt. He scrambled for a 5-yard gain on the next play but then threw an incompletion to bring up fourth down and two.
On the Tigers’ next possession, Daniel made a nice throw on a 9-yard completion to tight end Martin Rucker, but again couldn’t lead the Tigers to a first down.
“(I was) just getting into the offensive flow and getting the experience I needed so I can go from here and hopefully get some more playing time,” Daniel said.
He started his third series with an 8-yard run and the team finally earned a first down. But two plays later, on a third-and-five, came the low point of Daniel’s afternoon.
Standing in the pocket waiting for an open receiver, Daniel threw a pass to his right – to an apparently open receiver. Arkansas State safety Tyrell Johnson, however, stepped in front of the receiver, intercepted the ball and returned it 20 yards. The Indians later scored to cut the lead to 37-17. Pinkel reached for his Rolaids – and his starting quarterback.
“I’m very mad at myself for throwing that interception,” Daniel said. “We knew Brad was going to come back in.”
Daniel’s final stats were 4-of-11 passing for 23 yards and the pick with 22 yards running on six carries.
“He’s just a freshman,” Smith said. “He’s young. He’ll take on growing pains.”
Earlier in the week, Pinkel touted Daniel as the best freshman quarterback he had ever coached, including Brad Smith.
After Saturday’s game, the coach, his nerves calmed, seemed happy with Daniel’s first try.
“It was great for Chase to get in there, that’s great work for him. He did some good things, he did some poor things, but you need to get in there and get in the arena,” Pinkel said. “And my thoughts of how good he can be and how well he can play this year haven’t changed at all.”