Tigers seniors building impressive football legacy

Friday, November 9, 2007 | 4:18 a.m. CST; updated 10:58 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

COLUMBIA - Senior tight end Martin Rucker towered over the media surrounding him Monday, answering questions about Saturday’s game against Texas A&M, his last at Faurot Field.

“Will it be emotional?” a reporter asked.

He started to reply, but one person darted into the semicircle of reporters. He firmly stuck out his hand, but he wasn’t holding a microphone or a tape recorder. Then he interrupted Rucker.

“Will you cry?” the latecomer asked.

“No,” Rucker said, laughing.

It was senior nose tackle Lorenzo Williams who had jumped into the crowd, joking around with his fellow captain. The two came to Missouri in 2003, when they roamed the hallways of now-demolished Smith Hall and made frequent trips to Subway.

The two are members of a senior class that could establish itself as one of the best at Missouri. With 28 wins, it is tied for 10th in all-time victories by classes. The 2007 seniors could move up the list, topped by the class of 1963 with 33 victories, with at least three regular-season games and a bowl game remaining.

Although Rucker said he wouldn’t cry, coach Gary Pinkel admitted he would get emotional. “It’s gonna be pretty tough on me,” he said.

The class is Pinkel’s third to graduate since taking over at MU in 2001. Pinkel usually focuses on the Tigers’ upcoming opponent during his weekly Monday news conference. But this week, he took time to contemplate the seniors’ significance and to express how indebted he feels to them. “They’ve been soldiers of our program. And when it’s all said and done, we’ll be able to list several things that they’ve done to help rebuild this program,” he said.

Along with the number of victories, the Tigers will also play in their fourth bowl game in five years to conclude their season, which hasn’t happened since the five-year period from 1978 to 1982.

When the seniors committed to MU, they sensed the program was ready to grow.

“When (center) Adam (Spieker) and I came here, we came in on a hunch with the players that (MU) was beginning to blossom,” left tackle Tyler Luellen said. “We basically thought that the whole thing was going to explode, and it has. As well as we have been doing (this season), I think what guys like Adam and I want to go out on is to make sure the program is going in the right direction.”

A talented group will take over for the seniors. The offense will lose five starters: Luellen, Spieker, Rucker, wide receiver Will Franklin and tailback Tony Temple. But with depth at wide receiver and tailback, quarterback Chase Daniel will have plenty of weapons sticking around. The defense, which has steadily improved since its early-season struggles, will lose only two starters: Williams and cornerback Darnell Terrell.

But to ensure their legacy, the seniors must keep winning, starting with Texas A&M.

Last year, the Aggies beat the Tigers 25-19 in College Station. With three fumbles in the first half, the Tigers’ performance helped inspire this year’s motto, “It’s All About the Ball,” which stressed forcing turnovers on defense and limiting them on offense.

The Aggies will have to run the ball and control the clock to beat the Tigers. In Big 12 Conference play, they have the No. 2 rushing attack gaining 216 yards per game. The Tigers counter with the No. 2 rushing defense in Big 12 play, giving up only 83.8 yards per game.

Quarterback Stephen McGee and 270-pound running back Jorvorskie Lane lead A&M’s option-style offense. The pressure will be on MU’s linebackers to stop the attack. Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon knows about McGee and his speed. They played against each other in high school.

Weatherspoon said he blames the Tigers’ collapse last year on the Aggies. To avoid another blow to the team’s momentum, he said the team has a mission. “We want to go out there, and — I don’t know the exact words to say — we kind of want to punish them for what they did to us last year,” Weatherspoon said.

With rumors swirling around A&M coach Dennis Franchione this week, the Aggies will have added motivation for Saturday’s game. Franchione has been dodging questions about contract buyout negotiations.

“He’s our coach and he’s our man and we’re going to fight our tail off for him,” McGee told the Associated Press.

Pinkel refused to answer questions about those rumors Monday. He affirmed his embattled friend. “I have tremendous respect for him. He’s a great coach. He’s had great success. Hopefully, that’s not true,” Pinkel said.

Daniel, 3 others named to ACADEMIC ALL-district team: Daniel, long snapper Steven Blair, punter Adam Crossett and right guard Kurtis Gregory were named to the ESPN The Magazine Academic All-District 1st Team. They will be now be considered for Academic All-America honors, which will be announced later this month.

RALLY IN KANSAS CITY: A bowl-like atmosphere will surround the Nov. 24 Missouri-Kansas game at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. The Tiger Club of Kansas City announced it will host a pep rally at 7 p.m. Nov. 23 at 14th St. and Grand Ave in downtown Kansas City. Former MU players, the MU spirit squad and pep band will participate. Admission is free.

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