COLUMBIA — It’s a simple scenario for Missouri this weekend at Kansas State, as straightforward as snapping the football.
“Nobody needs to say anything about it. We know what we got to do,” defensive tackle Lorenzo Williams said.
If the Tigers win Saturday in Manhattan, Kan., the hype will be unleashed for the Nov. 24 game against Kansas — the unofficial Big 12 Conference North Division championship game. But if they lose, and Kansas beats Iowa State, the Jayhawks will win the North, and a collective groan will resonate across the state.
The Tigers are aware of their hapless history against the Wildcats. Just ask coach Gary Pinkel.
“That’s going to be another barrier. Someone will say they haven’t won there (in Manhattan) in 97 years. I don’t know how many years it’s been. I’ll hear that Monday or Tuesday,” Pinkel said Saturday after the Tigers’ victory against Texas A&M.
The answer is 1989. The Tigers have lost there eight consecutive times.
While MU is thriving, the Wildcats are reeling after one of their worst losses in decades. They lost at Nebraska 73-31, giving up 702 yards and surrendering the most points they had in a game since 1971.
“It’s real clear that that’s one of the toughest losses that you can ever take,” Kansas State coach Ron Prince said. “You can’t in your wildest dreams imagine something like that occurring.”
That result didn’t seem possible when the Big 12 season began. It seemed the Wildcats might contend for the North after upsetting Texas 41-21 in Austin. But they have lost four of their past six games, and if they lose to MU, they will have to win their last game at Fresno State to qualify for a bowl game.
Problems are surfacing on defense and special teams. The Wildcats pride themselves on getting to the quarterback. Although they are second in the Big 12 in sacks, Prince said they haven’t been getting enough pressure. They have also given up two kickoff returns for touchdowns in Big 12 play.
“Clearly, we have some things and some challenges that we’re working through during the second half of the year,” Prince said. “And Missouri’s talent and their ability doesn’t make that any better. But they don’t care about our struggles.”
Many coaches compliment their opposition, but when lauding the MU offense, Prince’s remarks were hyperbole. “This is definitely like the ‘Greatest Show on Turf,’” said Prince, conjuring images of former St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner leading the team to a Super Bowl title.
The comparisons to the Rams didn’t stop there. Prince called wide receiver Jeremy Maclin “the playmaker because he reminds me a lot of Marshall Faulk,” pinning him as a legitimate first round NFL pick along with tight ends Martin Rucker and Chase Coffman. “They may have more that are just waiting in wings waiting to emerge,” Prince said.
Pinkel ignored Prince’s praise when it was brought up. “I’m focusing on trying to win a football game, not looking at draft choices,” he said.
The Tigers’ primary concerns are 6-foot-6, 250-pound sophomore quarterback Josh Freeman and senior wide receiver and All-America candidate Jordy Nelson, who is second in the nation in catches (9.9) and receiving yards (134.7) per game.
Tackling Freeman will prove difficult for Williams and his teammates. “He can still have the ball and be dragging you along and still throw a 30-yard touchdown pass,” Williams said.
Williams joked about how the team will simulate Freeman in practice. “I might be back there throwing the ball a little bit,” he said, laughing.
As for Nelson, Pinkel let his coaches mull over the strategy while he addressed the media Monday.
“We are discussing that up in the offices as we speak right here now,” he said. The Tigers have had success against top wide receivers, holding Texas Tech’s Michael Crabtree, the nation’s leader, to only 76 yards last month.
But with historical success looming, staying focused on the Wildcats will be as important for the Tigers as shutting down Freeman and Nelson. Pinkel said he didn’t have to remind his players about overlooking the Wildcats.
“First of all, I don’t think we’ve even accomplished enough to even get that speech. It’s not like we’re Ohio State and Michigan. ... We’re fighting to be a part of that for the first time,” he said.