COLUMBIA — Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel was still throwing lasers shortly after Tuesday’s football practice.
Only he wasn’t tossing a football. He was chucking snowballs. And he wasn’t looking for one of his receivers. He was gunning for backup quarterback Chase Patton and quarterbacks coach David Yost.
“Wooo!” Daniel yelled in triumph as he nailed Yost in the back and quickly ran for cover outside Daniel J. Devine Pavilion.
Like the last few remnants of snow in Columbia, it was clear that any lingering disappointments from losing to Oklahoma in the Big 12 Conference Championship game and being left out of the Bowl Championship Series had melted away.
After the team took Wednesday off, Thursday’s practice was again upbeat. Tight end Martin Rucker ran in circles around the practice facility with his arms extended like an airplane and running back Tony Temple sprung cartwheels along the sideline like a gymnast practicing for a floor routine.
“Everyone’s real juiced up and ready to go play football,” Rucker said. “The BCS thing stung for a couple of days, but after that, it doesn’t matter. It’s back to business.”
The Tigers’ fresh attitude couldn’t have come at a better time. After taking two weeks off and using the first four practices to work on developing younger players, the team finally began to prepare for its Cotton Bowl match up against Arkansas.
“We’re getting right now in game week practice schedule, so this is like a Tuesday practice for us,” coach Gary Pinkel said. “Tomorrow will be like a Wednesday practice, and Saturday morning will be like a Thursday practice. And then we’ll continue right into game week when we get back from Christmas.”
The Tigers will undoubtedly use a large chunk of that time devising a plan to stop Arkansas running back Darren McFadden, a task most teams have failed miserably at this season.
McFadden, who finished second in this year’s Heisman race, finished fourth in the country with 1,725 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns in 12 games.
Making the job more difficult for the Tigers is the Razorbacks’ “Wild Hog” formation, where McFadden lines up at quarterback in the shotgun position with the option to run, hand the ball off or throw downfield.
All three options are equally dangerous. Backup running back Felix Jones has rushed for 1,117 yards, fourth-best in the Southeastern Conference, and McFadden has six completions on the year with four touchdown passes.
What does Pinkel think about this “Wild Hog” formation?
“Interesting,” he said. “We do a lot of creative things, too, so it’s nice to see other people that are maybe even more creative than we are.”
Defensive lineman Lorenzo Williams has a list of things the defense needs to do to stop Arkansas that is as long as most children’s Christmas wish lists.
“It’s a good running game they got going there,” he said. “We just need to hold our own, stop them when we can stop them, contain them, put them down when we hit them, don’t let them break tackles and get them out of their running game, and we should be all right.”
Pinkel was also complementary of the Razorbacks’ defense. He touted Arkansas’s secondary for its physical play and said it will be key for Missouri’s receivers to create separation downfield for Daniel to find them.
“They play a lot of man defense and bump-and-run (coverage),” Pinkel said. “It’s really going to be a huge match up in terms of one-on-one with receivers and defensive backs. They’re very skilled.”
Thursday’s practice was about 15 minutes longer than usual so that the players and coaches could begin working on specific plays and formations the team will incorporate into its game plan.
Pinkel said afterward that his team looked exceptionally crisp after the long layoff.
“We had a real good practice,” he said. “I thought it was physical. I thought we had great focus, and I think that’s the big thing you want right now.”
Even though the BCS is out of the picture, there’s still plenty of incentive for the Tigers to play well.
“When you look at what we have a chance to do as a team here, we can win 12 games, the most ever in the school’s history,” Williams said. “There’s a lot of things we can do still. We can finish in the top five, which is hard to do on a consistent basis. So just getting ready for next year, it would be a huge win for us.
Rucker, fresh off his airplane act, said he hasn’t seen any signs of a possible letdown come New Year’s Day.
“Not at all,” he said. “Not this team.”