It seems to be a matter of proximity. The pesky, no-good, next-door neighbor eager to ruin your concentration.
Welcome to the Missouri football team’s noon matchup Saturday at Kansas, its oldest and biggest rival.
The Jayhawks (3-4, 0-4) will try to thwart the Tigers’ (5-2, 3-1) attempt to remain atop the Big 12 Conference North Division and clinch bowl eligibility.
Kansas would like nothing more than to deal a blow to Missouri’s division-title chances on the Jayhawks’ Homecoming weekend.
“The more you win, the bigger the games become,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said.
Despite being the underdogs, Kansas had no trouble with the Tigers when they traveled to Lawrence, Kan., two seasons ago. Missouri was 4-0, but a sellout crowd of 50,071 (the largest crowd for any Lawrence game in the 114-year history of the series) saw Kansas beat Missouri 35-14 behind a standout performance from quarterback Bill Whittemore. A 31-14 loss at home to KU last season offered the Tigers no redemption.
“They’ve outplayed and outcoached us the last couple years, and they won because they deserved to win,” Pinkel said.
Fans taunted the Tigers after the last game in Lawrence.
“I stayed out on the field when they were rushing (the field),” senior Tony Palmer said. “I wanted to remember that moment, to know how it felt, so it would give me an extra drive.”
Palmer said the Tigers didn’t prepare well the past two years.
“We didn’t take the games as seriously as we should have,” he said.
Palmer said this season’s MU team is different.
“We’re a lot more focused and the maturity has risen,” he said.
Pinkel said he is trying to keep his team focused on the game plan, not on the rivalry or any postseason implications the game might have.
“We’re better when we’re looking at this game and not all that other stuff because that distracts us and we’re not very good at dealing with distractions,” he said.
Still, Palmer said the two losses to KU will be a factor on the field Saturday.
“It’s fuel for me,” he said. “What happened last year and the year before just drives me to play that much harder.”
A lot has changed in Lawrence since 2003 when the Jayhawks stunned the Tigers.
Then fourth in the nation in total offense, KU is now ranked 104th.
The Jayhawks have taken a season-long spin on the quarterback carousel, and will give Jason Swanson his first career start on Saturday. Swanson threw a touchdown to Charles Gordon last week against Colorado, the Jayhawks’ only touchdown in the past three games. Gordon, known for his ability to play both cornerback and receiver, will play primarily on offense in hopes he can spark the team.
“He’s a great player,” Pinkel said of Gordon. “You don’t like him on defense, you don’t like him on offense. He’s a great athlete who can make plays on both sides of the ball and their trying to get the ball in his hands, and I think that’s very smart.”
The defense that held Missouri to 196 yards and Brad Smith to 31 on the ground two years ago has steadily improved. Last year it held Smith to a career-low minus-41 yards rushing. This year the Jayhawks have the No. 2 running defense in the country, led by senior All-Big 12 linebacker Nick Reid.
“Their linebacking core is very experienced,” Pinkel said. “It seems like those three guys have been there forever.”
Although Missouri ran all over Nebraska’s No.1-ranked run defense in a 41-24 win last week, Pinkel said his team is taking nothing for granted this week.
“I don’t think you really look at it like that,” Pinkel said. “What you do is you separate the games, that game is over with and Nebraska is done. Kansas has it’s own scheme and they run it well.”