LAWRENCE, Kan. — This was too hard to put into words, so most of the Missouri football players didn’t try.
It was a sad sight to see them, filing out of the visiting locker room of Kansas’ Memorial Stadium, hushed and red-eyed. For three years they had tried to shake this beast of a Kansas team. For three years they had done their best to regain the edge in the annual Border Showdown. For three years they had tried and for three years they had failed, this time in an emotional 13-3 loss.
It wasn’t that Kansas was overly talented. It was the opposite, in fact. But somehow, whenever these two teams meet, talent never seemed to matter all that much.
This is evident, perhaps foremost, in the play of Missouri quarterback Brad Smith over the past two years. In his previous two games against Kansas, the Division-I active leader in total offense had been held to a combined negative eight yards rushing.
What made this year’s edition of the Border Showdown loss so difficult, though, was that this game was supposed to be different.
Missouri was 2-1 in the Big 12 Conference, Kansas was 0-3, and this was to be nothing more than a tune-up for the Tigers before next Saturday’s showdown with Big 12 North foe Colorado. At least, that’s what it was in the eyes of many Missouri fans.
Although the Jayhawks’ rush defense (ranked second in the nation entering the game) created
a small cause for concern, Missouri had thoroughly dismantled Nebraska’s then-No. 1 ranked run defense a week earlier, and there was no reason to believe Saturday’s game would be any different. Not with Smith rolling. Not with a newfound confidence borne out of a number of inspiring late-game performances.
Not against a Kansas team that had gone two straight weeks without scoring a touchdown.
But then the Jayhawks opened Saturday’s game with a touchdown. And then they scored another, and before anyone really knew what had happened, Missouri was down 13-3 with less than eight minutes left in the fourth quarter.
It was not unlike the predicament the team had faced two weeks earlier, against a pesky Iowa State team that had brought a grudge when it arrived in Columbia on Oct. 22, and pulled to a 24-14 fourth quarter lead.
But this time, there were no late-game heroics. No Chase Daniel, who against the Cyclones led the Tigers to a 27-24 overtime victory. No staunch fan support, like there was at the Iowa State game during Missouri’s homecoming weekend.
And there was one more difference: this time around, the game was against Kansas.
The Missouri-Kansas rivalry, while seemingly overblown at times, was achingly apparent in the 60 minutes of football played Saturday in Lawrence. You could feel the hate coursing through the teams.
Even before the opening kick-off, replays of Missouri’s disastrous loss to Kansas in 2004 flashed over the video board on the south side of the stadium. The theme of the highlights involved Brad Smith getting sacked, then sacked again, then sacked, for good measure, a few more times. During the game, away-from-the-ball blocks were overly-intense and lasted long after the plays had ended. In the second quarter, Kansas’ All-Big 12 linebacker Nick Reid tackled Smith far into the sideline after a short run, prompting a verbal scuffle near the Missouri bench.
Even senior receiver Sean Coffey, the epitome of laid-back, wasn’t immune to getting in the face of Kansas defenders, at one point having to be separated from the Jayhawks’ Banks Floodman.
After the game, Missouri safety David Overstreet motioned in the direction of the Kansas locker room, “I hate them. I really do. I’m sorry, man, but I can’t stand them dudes.”
This feeling was not unique to Overstreet. All week senior safety Jason Simpson had smiled a sly smile when asked about the 2003 game against the Jayhawks in Lawrence, when Kansas fans spilled onto the field after their team’s 35-14 victory.
“I’ll talk to you after the game,” he grinned, implying, no doubt, that after Missouri had taken care of business, he’d enlighten the general public to the specifics of his distaste for the Jayhawks.
But where was Simpson as the sun began to fall late Saturday afternoon, as a crowd gathered awaiting his emergence from the Missouri locker room?
“Jason’s not going to talk to anybody,” Missouri media relations director Chad Moller told the contingent.
Senior offensive lineman Tony Palmer, who had sat speechless in the locker room after the game, his head buried in his massive hands, couldn’t muster much of a response to Saturday’s loss. “I don’t even know what to say, man,” he said, his eyes shielded by a pair of sunglasses.
And it wasn’t just Palmer who reacted this way.
“I saw a couple guys in there that are taking it tough,” said junior receiver Brad Ekwerekwu.
“Taking it real tough. They spent the last three years trying to beat these guys, and all you can do is try to comfort them and encourage them.”
The implications of Saturday’s game are numerous. With Colorado’s 23-20 win against Kansas State Saturday, Missouri lost its share of the Big 12 North lead, which means that next week’s game in Boulder is essentially a must-win if Missouri hopes to stay in the hunt for the Big 12 North title. Missouri coach Gary Pinkel most likely reclaimed his spot on the hot seat. And Smith, after his best game of the season last week against Nebraska, might have re-opened the argument that Daniel deserves a shot at the starting quarterback position.
But those issues will be dealt with later. As players filed out of the locker room, they did so sharing the same sullen expression, weighed down by the demon that they’d failed to exorcise. And when the team bus pulled away a few minutes later, making its way through the streets of Lawrence, heading back to a city of disappointed fans and to a world of newly-realized uncertainty, you could almost feel the heartache that must have been swirling inside.