DALLAS — Lorenzo Williams and Martin Rucker were two of the first players on this year’s 12-2 team to come to Missouri.
The two seniors were the last players to leave the field after the Tigers’ dominant 38-7 victory against Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl.
Before the game ended, they celebrated by pouring a cooler of Gatorade on coach Gary Pinkel.
And when it was time for Pinkel and the team to hoist the Field Scovell Trophy for winning the game, the coach was looking for one of his leaders.
“Where’s Rucker at?” Pinkel asked, while the Tigers were bathing in swirling confetti and fans’ adulation.
The Fox television cameras had to roll, however. After Pinkel lifted the trophy, it was passed on to his players. Williams raised it in the air with two hands. His teammates gathered around him and reached with outstretched arms to touch their prize.
Rucker eventually arrived. He had an excuse for arriving late to the party. He was hugging his family, including his brother Mike Rucker, a defensive end for the Carolina Panthers.
“I was paying tribute to my family and my fans,” Rucker said.
After the festivities ended, the team headed through the tunnel to the locker room. But Rucker and Williams stuck around.
“Cheese,” Rucker said, flashing his big smile while taking a picture with fans.
“We love you, Rucker,” two young female fans yelled, begging him to sign their poster.
Rucker and Williams obliged, high-fiving the crowd, signing autographs and granting impromptu interviews with television stations.
Finally, they jogged back through the tunnel to join their team. “Coach been looking for you,” an official said to Williams.
You can’t blame them for reveling with fans after their playing final game with the Tigers. They deserved to take in a few more fleeting moments after all they and their fellow seniors have accomplished for the team.
Pinkel was beaming like a proud father after the game. Rucker and Williams had reminded him about how far they had traveled over five years to secure a victory in the Cotton Bowl and a Top Ten ranking.
“That just kind of overwhelmed me,” Pinkel said, thinking of where he started with his senior class. “At that time, it was very difficult. I think I said that and expressed that this week. So I’m just so proud of all my seniors and what they’ve done.”
Quarterback Chase Daniel, who ceded the spotlight to senior tailback Tony Temple in the game, lauded all of the graduating class, right down to the players on the scout team. Daniel knows how the Tigers were mired in defeat and misery. But the seniors ignored that history and came to Columbia.
“Five years ago, when no one wanted to come here, when they had to beg them to come here, and they did,” Daniel said. “They were unbelievable players at the time, and they’re even better now.”
The grateful quarterback followed them, and they all capped off arguably one of the best seasons in MU football history by embarrassing the Razorbacks.
Is this year’s team the best ever?
It’s the first to win 12 games, besting the 1960 squad by one victory. That was the only other year when the Tigers were ranked No. 1. They completed that season by winning the Orange Bowl, finishing No. 5 in the final AP poll. That’s the highest the Tigers have ever finished. This year’s team will have to wait until the national championship is played Monday before they learn how it measures up.
And like that 1960 team, this year’s team could be remembered as a group that ushered in an era of football glory for the Tigers.
“You can look back and say, ‘Hey, the Martin Ruckers, the Zos, the Will Franklins, all those guys — they helped do it.’ They set the foundation,” Daniel said.
Now it’s up to Daniel and the rest of the team to build on that success. The Tigers will lose several key players on offense, including Rucker, Temple, Franklin, center Adam Spieker and left tackle Tyler Luellen.
But the majority of players on defense will be back. The unit was young and inexperienced to start the year, but it shut down the Razorbacks, holding them to only 361 yards. Young leaders, like sophomore linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and junior safety William Moore, have emerged as leaders to take over for Williams.
Moore said he will be back unless he’s projected as a first-round pick in April’s NFL draft. And he and Weatherspoon have already made a big pledge to Williams.
A national championship.
“I don’t know if I’m guaranteeing it, but if they do what they’re supposed to do and take this game to the next level, 14-0, 13-1, no doubt,” Williams said.
And how will Williams react if Moore and Weatherspoon don’t follow through on their promise?
“If they don’t get it, I’m coming back,” Williams said. “And I think I’m going to start burning some houses down. They got to do it. They have too much coming back.”