It was a September game against a Sun Belt Conference team and Missouri had a 31-point lead, but Chase Daniel was acting like this was the final two minutes of a close game in the Rose Bowl.
The Tigers’ backup quarterback had, after all, never led a touchdown drive in a college game.
That’s why, with Daniel and his offense facing a fourth-and-five from Troy’s 11-yard line Saturday at Faurot Field, coach Gary Pinkel decided to try for a first down instead of kicking a field goal.
That’s why Daniel, a freshman playing in his second career game, was excited after he hit sophomore tight end Martin Rucker to get down to the 3. He gave a short, emphatic fist pump as if the result of the drive might actually affect the outcome of what became a 52-21 Missouri win.
And that’s why after Daniel ran into the end zone two plays later, he jumped into teammates’ arms in celebration and why, after the game, he was still all smiles.
“It’s just a great feeling to get in there and get the first one,” he said.
For as well as Daniel’s day ended, its start was frustrating. By the start of the fourth quarter, the Tigers (2-1) had the game well in hand, but Pinkel kept senior starter Brad Smith at quarterback. Finally, with 9:46 left and Missouri pinned at its own 2, Pinkel put Daniel in.
Pinkel said that because the game was a blowout, he considered giving Daniel the ball sooner and in a less difficult situation. But deciding when to replace starters can be tricky. Saturday, for instance, he wanted to keep Smith in so he could gain more passing yards.
“I’d like to tell you I can break it down A-B-C-D and go through this process but I don’t...,” Pinkel said. “It just got to the point where, we gotta get Chase in, I don’t care what Brad’s numbers are. Get Chase in because he needs the work. That’s basically what it boiled down to. If Brad had 230 yards throwing, we’d probably have put Chase in a series sooner.”
When Daniel did get the ball, he had less than 10 minutes to go for his first career touchdown. Having the ball just 2 yards in front of his own end zone didn’t help.
“Fumbled the first snap. My fault,” said Daniel, who recovered the loose ball. “Second one, called run, got four yards, and the third one ... I should have got the first down, but I didn’t.”
The Tigers punted but got the ball back after a quick three-and-out from Troy, this time with better field position. A mix of runs and short passes helped MU move the ball to the Troy 32. Then Daniel
hit Rucker for a 16-yard gain. Three plays later, it was fourth-and-five.
“The kid is a great competitor,” Rucker said. “I knew he wanted to go for it.”
Daniel looked toward Pinkel on the sideline, got the OK, and hit Rucker again for the conversion. By that time, he was thinking about that first career touchdown.
“Martin made an awesome catch on just a little sprint-out, a 6-yard out,” Daniel said. “I just made the throw, he did the rest...and when you get down inside the 5, you expect to score the touchdown.”
On second down from the Troy 1, Daniel ran an option play. He saw an opening, so he kept the ball and scooted easily into the end zone.
That made the score a laughable 52-14, and this was just an early season nonconference game.
But for Smith’s heir apparent, it was the first of what could be many collegiate touchdowns.
That was reason enough to celebrate.