COLUMBIA — Tony Temple was stranded at his house less than seven weeks ago.
“Oh my God. My heart was stopping,” he said.
He was alone, sitting on his couch. His teammates were together, battling Oklahoma in Norman.
“It was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” Temple said.
Stuck in Columbia with a sprained ankle, Temple fought his loneliness during the game. He did not travel with the team after suffering his injury against Nebraska the week before. He sent text messages to his teammates during the game. Keep going, he told them. He left voice mail messages. And yelled.
“Every good thing, I’m running outside making sure everybody hears me,” Temple said.
But the cheering ceased for Temple and the Tigers in the fourth quarter. Turnovers tormented them. An MU coaching error caused a botched play and key fumble. The loss in Norman has been this season’s only blemish, but the team says it was the turning point of the season.
October’s game is far from the Tigers’ mind. The notion of revenge is too infantile. But this time Temple will play. Quarterback Chase Daniel will be looking at him closely to make sure he’s ready for the Tigers’ most important game. With a victory against the Sooners in Saturday’s Big 12 Conference Championship in San Antonio, the No. 1 Tigers will play for the national title Jan. 7 in New Orleans.
Before the Oct. 13 game against the Sooners, Temple sent Daniel several text messages. Play out of your butt, he told him.
“And we obviously didn’t do it. We were upset about that,” Daniel said.
They got close, though. After trailing 23-10 early in the third quarter, the Tigers countered, scoring two touchdowns to take a 24-23 lead into the fourth quarter. But the Sooners regained the lead 29-23. Then the game dropped out of the Tigers’ grasp.
The offense was confused on the second play of the ensuing drive. Coaches sent in different signals, coach Gary Pinkel said, resulting in a broken play. Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin sprinted across the backfield to get a handoff from Daniel. But the quarterback was surprised and fumbled the exchange. Linebacker Curtis Lofton picked up the ball and ran it 12 yards for an OU touchdown, carrying Daniel on his back for the last few yards.
“The plays were signaled in wrong to Jeremy and Chase. I just want to make it clear. That wasn’t the players’ fault. That was our fault,” Pinkel said Monday during the Big 12 Championship teleconference.
A reporter pressed for details later that afternoon. Pinkel politely refused. “No, I can’t. Because that has to do about how we signal in,” he said.
Despite the loss, the Tigers remained confident. They realized they had had a chance to beat the Sooners in Norman, where they hadn’t won since 1966. With a favorable schedule ahead of them, their goals were attainable. “That starts out of the respect the players have for Oklahoma. We competed at their place,” Pinkel said. “I think they’ve won every game there for about ever, it seems like. I think our team at that time said, ‘Hey, we can be pretty good. And if we keep getting better, we might have a chance at this.’”
The Tigers won their next six games, culminating in Saturday’s victory against Kansas. If they beat the Sooners, West Virginia will be their likely opponent for the national title.
Those stakes are grand enough, but some reporters were still trying to inject intrigue into the rematch Monday. One sounded like he was pitching a hackneyed spy novel during Pinkel’s press conference.
“That sounds like a book — ‘The Ultimate Revenge.’” the coach said. “That game’s over with,” he added.
Players agreed. “We’re much more mature competitors than to be seeking revenge,” tight end Martin Rucker.
For Temple, he will just be happy to be with his teammates. “This is my family,” he said.
Although Pinkel is glad Temple is healthy, he said his replacements played well against the Sooners. “Obviously, having Tony back’s great. But we never came out of that game and said, ‘I wish we’d had Tony Temple.’ My other players, I thought, did a good job,” he said.
But the Tigers gained only 57 net yards rushing against the Sooners, their lowest total of the season. Maclin led the team with 32 yards.
Pinkel said Temple’s value should be judged after Saturday’s game. “He could be a huge impact. There’s no question about it. I think he makes us a better offense,” he said.
After taking several games to regain his footing, Temple has helped ignite the Tigers. With the offense struggling against Kansas in the first quarter, he gained 55 of his 98 yards on the team’s first two touchdown drives.
Only Daniel knows when Temple is ready to play.
“If he doesn’t have that look in his eyes that I know, and I’m pretty much the only one who knows it, then I’m going to get in his face and smack him around a little bit,” Daniel said.
How far is he willing to go?
“As much as needed,” he said, smiling.