SAN ANTONIO – Martin Rucker came back to play his senior year for a chance like this.
The All-American tight end could have entered the NFL draft last year, but he knew Missouri’s potential in 2007, and he wanted to be a part of a championship team.
On Saturday against Oklahoma in the Big 12 Conference Championship, Rucker saw those chances slip right through his fingers — literally.
With the No. 1-ranked Tigers trailing by a touchdown late in the third quarter, quarterback Chase Daniel faced a heavy pass rush and threw a dart to Rucker, who wasn’t expecting it. The ball hit off his hands and was intercepted. The Sooners scored two plays later, and the Tigers never recovered.
Oklahoma 38, Missouri 17.
This wasn’t how Rucker envisioned it when he decided to come back.
“(It’s) just disappointment now,” he said after the game. “It’s not just for me, but for everybody in the locker room. We fought and battled so hard all season long and all game long this game.
“It’s just too bad it worked out that way.”
It was a familiar ending for a team that came into the Big 12 championship game with hopes of playing for a national title. With the loss, the Tigers became the fourth team in the 12-year history of the Big 12 to have their national title dreams end in the conference championship.
“Our players are very disappointed,” MU coach Gary Pinkel said. “That’s what they should be. They’re competitors.”
The Tigers thought they had learned from their first loss to the Sooners on Oct. 13 in Norman, Okla. Missouri blamed that loss on four costly turnovers. The key to the rematch, Pinkel said, would be to take better care of the ball and limit mistakes.
But the Tigers appeared to be too cautious this time around. They seldom challenged Oklahoma’s defensive backs down the field, instead settling for underneath passes and quick strikes near the sideline.
When they had chances to score touchdowns, they bogged down. Three times the Tigers faced a first-and-goal. Three times they left with field goals.
“We had to limit out mistakes,” Daniel said. “That was our mind-set. We were going to attack, still going to do stuff we felt comfortable with. And we did it for the most part. We just got to turn red-zone (opportunities) into touchdowns.”
The Tigers also hoped that having a healthy Tony Temple would help keep the Sooners’ defense off balance. But Temple, who watched the first game from his home in Columbia because of a sprained ankle, never got going. Oklahoma’s defense overpowered the Tigers’ offensive line, and Temple’s spin moves that had Kansas players grasping air a week ago didn’t fool any of the Sooners.
Temple finished with 26 yards on 13 carries.
“We had momentum going in,” Temple said, “We just couldn’t execute. But that’s on us, and we have to get the job done.”
Pinkel, Daniel, Temple, Rucker and defensive lineman Lorenzo Williams all wore expressions of disbelief as they sat at the podium and answered questions after the game. Pinkel’s eyes were glossed over, his face tired. Rucker looked lost, as if he were still trying to find that fateful pass from Daniel.
In a season of such success, of record-setting performances, of rivalry wins and even a No. 1 ranking, the Tigers were in no mood to focus on their accomplishments.
“It’s too soon,” Rucker said. “The season’s not over yet. This game didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to, so we don’t have any reason to rejoice.”