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ST. LOUIS -- The football world is officially and completely off its axis when the Missouri Tigers beat a ranked opponent and major rival by 10 points -- yet are mad afterward.That's what happened here Saturday night. After America's most entertaining team outdazzled Illinois in a 52-42 track meet, coach Gary Pinkel went into his locker room and was greeted with widespread disappointment.
"That upsets me a little bit," Pinkel said. "When you win, you enjoy it."
Pinkel packs the perspective his young players lack. He remembers double-digit losses to Bowling Green, Troy and New Mexico. His first four years in Columbia, his record was 22-25 -- and that was pretty good compared to his predecessors' records. Missouri had just two winning seasons between 1984 and 2002.
At Mizzou, enjoyment historically has been distributed with an eyedropper.
But Missouri has won 13 of its past 15 games, and Sudden Entitlement Syndrome has afflicted much of the Show-Me State. After finishing 2007 in the top five and starting 2008 ranked sixth in The Associated Press poll -- the highest preseason ranking in school history -- the Tigers apparently now fancy themselves the USC of the Midwest.From that warped new worldview, scoring the most points in school history against a ranked opponent elicits no giddiness. Hanging the most points on Illinois in its past 30 games -- three more than the Trojans scored in the Rose Bowl in January -- doesn't move the needle on the Joy-O-Meter. Watching your Heisman Trophy-candidate quarterback rack up 323 passing yards, 46 rushing yards and three passing touchdowns produces no overt fawning.
|Illinois couldn't get a hold of Chase Daniel and Missouri's offense.|
Yo, guys: You're Missouri. Teams get five downs against you. Teams kick balls in the air and catch them for the winning touchdown against you. Your last conference championship was in 1969.So soak that up and celebrate for a minute.
Of course, tempered enthusiasm would be understandable for a few reasons: The Tigers nearly blew a 25-point second-half lead, they gave up 451 passing yards and five passing touchdowns to a quarterback who has never come close to producing numbers like that, and they lost crazy-fast receiver/return man Jeremy Maclin in the fourth quarter to a left ankle injury.
That injury appeared especially grave when Maclin was carted to the locker room in tears midway through the final period. But X-rays were negative, and Maclin returned to the sideline with dry eyes, a pair of crutches and a bag of ice taped to the outside of his ankle.
"I'm going to be all right," Maclin said. "I'm OK."
Maclin's teammates went so far as to assert that he'll be on the practice field Tuesday, ready to go. That remains to be seen -- and truth be told, there is no reason to rush him back.
Missouri's three September opponents are Southeast Missouri State, Nevada and Buffalo. Given what a lingering ankle sprain can do to a guy who relies heavily on speed, the prudent thing would be a patient rehab that has him 100 percent by the time the Tigers travel to Nebraska to open Big 12 play Oct. 4.
And even though Maclin accumulated 234 all-purpose yards and returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown, it was clear Saturday that Missouri possesses many other weapons.
In his first start, sophomore running back Derrick Washington ran for 130 yards and two touchdowns. Backup Jimmy Jackson added 46 yards on just five carries. Five Tigers besides Maclin caught passes -- including tight end Chase Coffman, a 255-pound stud who hurdled Illinois cornerback Dere Hicks on one eye-opening play.
-- Missouri receiver Tommy Saunders
When Daniel has the Tigers really stepping on it in their "Superfast Ball" offense, they're clicking off plays at an astonishing pace. Daniel said they want to be snapping the ball with 30 seconds on the play clock, which can result in eye-blink drives -- like when Mizzou squeezed off 10 plays in two minutes and 25 seconds late in the first half, covering 87 yards for a touchdown.
"We need to do more of it," Daniel said.
That pace is difficult for defenses to contend with. So are the variety of options at Daniel's disposal.
"A lot of guys can make some plays," Pinkel said. "It's kind of fun to see it."
Said receiver Tommy Saunders, whose two touchdown catches doubled his season output of '07: "With this offense, it could be anybody's night."Despite that, only a dimwit wouldn't do everything in his power to limit Maclin first and foremost. Which brings us to Illinois coach Ron Zook, who made the odd decision to repeatedly kick the ball to Maclin. The sophomore left burn marks across the Edward Jones Dome turf on that kickoff-return touchdown.
From 1982 until last year, Missouri went a Tampa Bay Buccaneers-ish 25 years without a kickoff return for a touchdown. Then Maclin put on a black-and-gold uniform, and now the Tigers have two kickoff TDs in their past five games.
So that was just the Zooker being the Zooker when he gave Maclin that chance to score. But coaching gaffes aside, Illinois has a pretty impressive team. Certainly more impressive and talented than the six FCS opponents that played top-10 teams Saturday and were summarily pounded. There was much more to be learned from this game than from those seal clubbings.
|Jeremy Maclin's 99-yard kickoff return gave Missouri the lead for good.|
Illinois was good enough to expose the Missouri secondary, as its receivers repeatedly went loose on deep routes. The Mizzou defense was billed as massively improved, but that looks a bit like false advertising.
What rings true at Mizzou is the ancient belief that if the Tigers can simply seal off their borders in recruiting, they always should be among the best teams in the Big 12. One of the most mysterious elements of Missouri's historic ineptitude has been the fact that it is the only FBS school in a state with major metropolitan anchors, Kansas City and St. Louis, on its borders.
Now we know what a roster laden with homeboys can do. Eight offensive starters are from Missouri, and every skill player who touched the ball besides Daniel and wideout Jared Perry are in-state products.
You would think all those guys who grew up in Missouri would know their Tigers history. And if they know that bleak history, they're awfully happy to be 1-0.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.