James Joyce once called mistakes the portals of discovery.
One must wonder, then, what Joyce would have thought had he joined the throng of 50,701 fans at Faurot Field last Saturday, to watch the Missouri football team continually err, often at the most inopportune times, on its way to a 45-35 loss to New Mexico.
Missouri (1-1) finished the game with three turnovers. Senior quarterback Brad Smith, usually cool under pressure, accounted for all three. His fumble midway through the third quarter was returned by New Mexico’s Evroy Thompson for a touchdown to put the Lobos up 21-14 and significantly shift the game’s momentum.
“Mistakes,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said following the loss. “Too many mistakes. We just did a lot of things on both sides of the ball that make it difficult to win a real tight football game.”
If nothing else, in its first two games of the season, Missouri has proved more than capable of producing offensively. The Tigers are third in Division I-A and first in the Big 12 Conference in total offense, as Smith has recaptured the explosiveness that seemed to be missing in 2004. The Tigers have racked up 79 points in their first two games with their new spread offense. Missouri is 8-for-8 in red-zone scoring opportunities.
It’s the little things, though, that seem to give Missouri so much trouble.
Missouri has punted five times this season, averaging 29.8 yards per punt, fifth-worst in the nation. Matt Hoenes, the starter last week against the Lobos, has been replaced on the depth chart with sophomore Adam Crossett, who will now handle the field goal, extra-point and punting duties.
Although the offense has flourished, it has been packed with mishaps that have proven costly, uncharacteristic of Pinkel’s teams. The Tigers have turned the ball over six times this season. Compare that with 2003, the lone season Missouri has attended a bowl game under Pinkel, when the Tigers turned the ball over 10 times total. Last year, as the team spiraled to a 5-6 finish, Missouri turned the ball over 18 times.
The offensive line has also been the source of much anguish for Pinkel. Smith was sacked twice last week, for a loss of 25 yards, and was often hurried into passing the ball.
Even in the team’s 44-17 win against Arkansas State, the Tigers were anything but flawless. Wide receiver Sean Coffey fumbled twice in the first half, and freshman Chase Daniel threw an interception in his first college game.
“We’re doing some things good,” said offensive coordinator Dave Christensen. “But we’ve got to get better at some of the little things. And the big emphasis for us is to eliminate turnovers. We have to eliminate turnovers.”
Miscues haven’t been relegated to the offensive unit. Senior cornerback Calvin Washington failed to stop New Mexico receiver Hank Baskett multiple times in the second half Saturday. Baskett finished with 209 yards and three touchdowns.
“It’s early in the season, so a lot of teams are going to see this tape and be like ‘I think we can exploit them here and here’,” Washington said. “So you’ve just got to be prepared because you know they’re going to go after you now. So as a cornerback unit, we definitely understand the type of position we’ve put our team in now. So we’ve got to hold up our end of the bargain from here on out.”
Washington and company will get a chance to hold up their end Saturday, as they look for revenge against a Troy team that upset Missouri 24-14 last season, in a game that Troy locked up after intercepting a Brad Smith pass with less than five minutes left in the fourth quarter.
“There comes a point in time when you just gotta make plays,” Washington said. “When the ball’s up in the air, it’s like our coach says, somebody’s got to go make the plays.”