COLUMBIA — The excitement started as soon as the Illinois State game ended two weeks ago.
First, it was announced that the game will be played during primetime on ESPN. Then, the Tigers moved up to No. 17 in the Associated Press poll during the bye week, their highest ranking since 1998. On Wednesday, it was announced that the game was sold out, the first time that’s happened since 2003.
Now the Missouri-Nebraska game is finally here. And the excitement is palpable.
Unless you’re Gary Pinkel.
“All that stuff is part of it, playing in the ’Zou,” he said. “All that’s great and fine and dandy, but then we’re going to go on to the next one. That’s pretty much the approach we’re taking with our football team.”
Pinkel refuses to see the game as anything more than the Tigers’ Big 12 Conference opener, but Saturday’s game might have greater significance.
This game will likely gauge whether MU is the team the media voted to win the conference’s north division or the team that imploded against Oklahoma last year. It’ll also be the first real test for the offense, which scored with ease in the first four games but has not faced a defense as physical as Nebraska’s.
“We’ve had two weeks to prepare,” quarterback Chase Daniel said. “They’re almost getting annoying in my mind, because I know so much about them.”
Most importantly, the game will either expose or legitimize an MU defense that has been inconsistent and unable to stop the run.
Against Nebraska, the Tigers, who give up an average of 434.5 yards a game, will face the most explosive offense they’ve seen this season. ’Huskers running back Marlon Lucky leads the Big 12 in rushing, and quarterback Sam Keller averages almost 300 yards passing.
Keller transferred from Arizona State two years ago and won the starting job this year after Zac Taylor graduated.
“They’re not missing a beat,” Pinkel said. “Obviously having an experienced quarterback like that to come in and play at that caliber was huge for them.”
One MU player charged with stopping the ’Huskers aerial attack will be freshman cornerback Carl Gettis, who is starting in the place of sophomore Hardy Ricks. A converted running back, Gettis has seen action in every game this season but will get the first start of his career on Saturday after an impressive week of practice.
“He’s doing well,” defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus said. “I think it was a good plan on our part to kind of ease him in there and get more confidence as he goes.”
Senior cornerback Darnell Terrell said he’s confident Gettis won’t freeze up in the biggest game of the year.
“We want him to be excited and not be too anxious,” Terrell said. “It’s just a matter of him getting in there and staying focused and doing what he was taught to do: Make plays.”
The same can be said for the entire team, which has a chance to prove itself in front of a national audience.
“You go out there and you’re under the lights, you know you’re on TV, you know you’re ranked 17th in the nation, of course that’s going to come to your mind,” Daniel said. “But the best team is going to win. Or the one that can block all that out the most.”