Missouri isn't there yet

Saturday, October 13, 2007 | 10:58 p.m. CDT; updated 10:57 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

NORMAN, Okla. — To those who were listening, Gary Pinkel sent a warning.

He tried to caution Missouri fans before it happened. The 5-0 start? Dandy, he said. The 41-6 mauling of Nebraska? We’ll take it, he assured.

But when the question arose as to whether this all meant his program had finally taken that next big step, the step MU fans have been waiting for since he arrived seven years ago, Pinkel stopped short. He had been in this position before, and he wasn’t about to fall in the same trap.

“You can talk about that kind of stuff all you want,” he said after the Nebraska game. “But until you go out and do it, none of it matters.”

The message was clear, but perhaps it got lost in all the noise.

Perhaps it got lost in the polls, where MU was awarded the 11th ranking after beating the Huskers, its highest since 1981. Perhaps it got lost through the national media, through ESPN’s GameDay or the Heisman talk that suddenly thrust quarterback Chase Daniel into the spotlight. Maybe it was the New York Times column on wide receiver Jeremy Maclin.

Whatever the reason, the message never seemed to arrive at the doorsteps of the MU faithful.

And on Saturday night, with MU facing the ultimate test in one of the hardest places to play in the nation at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, the message came in loud and clear: the Tigers still aren’t there. Yet.

For three quarters, the Tigers kept up with the No. 6 Oklahoma Sooners and even held a one-point lead when the fourth quarter began. But the Sooners responded, as championship-caliber teams so often do, and the Tigers let their opportunities slip through their hands, as teams that aren’t quite there so often do, in a 41-31 loss.

The chances were certainly there for the Tigers. They forced Oklahoma into uncharacteristic turnovers and gained more yards total yards than the Sooners. The difference came down to which team could run the ball better and which team made fewer mistakes.

The Tigers finished with 57 yards rushing to the Sooners’ 118. And while Oklahoma committed two turnovers, it also scored 22 points off MU mistakes.

“It was kind of an evening of mistakes,” Pinkel said. “They made mistakes and we took advantage of it, and we made mistakes and they took advantage of it. We just made too many at the end.”

And now the Tigers and their fans are likely left with that same punched-in-the-gut feeling that knocked the wind out of them the previous three seasons.

The question now is how the Tigers respond.

Recent history shows that they could take a nosedive. Last year they started 6-0 before losing at Texas A&M. They would go on to lose four of their last six.

In 2005 MU started 5-2 but needed a come-from-behind victory against South Carolina in the Independence Bowl after losses to Kansas, Colorado and Kansas State derailed their hopes of a division championship and big-time bowl.

And in perhaps the team’s greatest recent collapse, MU started 4-1 in 2004 before a five-game losing streak left it out of the bowl picture completely.

The 2007 Tigers still have a chance to distinguish themselves from the Tigers of the past.

Their schedule is loaded with opportunities for redemption, beginning next week at home against 6-1 Texas Tech. Games against the crowded Big 12 North Division will also provide insight to how MU responds.

The early indications may give Tiger fans hope.

“What’s on our mind is Texas Tech,” Daniel said after the game. “They’re killing people right now so we have a test ahead of us.”

This loss likely won’t decide the Tigers’ season. But if they want to prove that their fast start wasn’t another fluke, they’ve still got a long way to go.

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