On Saturday night (7:00 P. M., FX), the Missouri Tigers (2-1) open conference play on the road as they travel to Norman to take on the #1 Oklahoma Sooners (2-0). Last year in Columbia, Missouri knocked the then #1-ranked Sooners from the ranks of the undefeated, with a 36-27 victory.
Missouri comes into this game off of a 69-0 win over Western Illinois, an FCS opponent, in which the Tigers set a single-game record, with 744 yards in total offense, and held their opponent to just 44 yards of total offense, which was the third-lowest total in school history.
"We're excited about a great opportunity against a great football team in Oklahoma this week," said Missouri Head Coach, Gary Pinkel. "It will be a real intense environment, and it's also exciting!"
Tigers are getting some of their injured players back, including starting DE Jacquies Smith, staring CB Kip Edwards, starting center Travis Ruth, and starting WR Jerrell Jackson. Missouri will still have several injured players on the sidelines, including staring LB Will Ebner, staring LT Elvis Fisher, and three TBs, Kendial Lawrence, De'Vion Moore, and Marcus Murphy.
"Jacquies is one of our leaders, one of our captains," said Missouri senior safety, Kenji Jackson, talking about the significance of getting Smith back on the field. "Just his presence does a whole lot for us as a defense. Our defensive line really looks up to him. The other thing is, he's a really good player. We've got a great opponent this weekend in Oklahoma, so we're excited to get him back and get the ball rolling this week in practice."
What's probably more relevant for the Tigers this week is just how healthy, and close to being at full speed, are the players who will be taking the field against the Sooners?
In any case, Missouri is heading into a hostile environment this Saturday. Earlier this week, Coach Pinkel addressed that issue.
"Honestly, the Arizona State atmosphere was pretty good," said coach Pinkel. "That place was rocking! Norman is a great stadium to play in, too. (James Franklin) has been in the arena. He understands what it is going to be like. You saw him (against ASU) screaming, checking plays at the line of scrimmage, in front of all those people. That was really good for him to do that. That being said, it's a great environment he's going to be in (this week)."
Sophomore QB James Franklin comes into this week with a 147.42 passer rating, which ranks 6th in the conference, after having completed 66% of his pass attempts (61-93-1), for 11.4 yards/completion, and 6 TDs through his first 3 games. A 6 to 1 TD to INT ratio is a good start for a young QB. Franklin's 231 passing yards/game ranks 6th in the conference, and his 283.7 yards of total offense/game ranks 5thin the Big 12, and 24th nationally.
"(James Franklin's) improving," began Coach Pinkel. "He's getting better. Certainly, I think he's maturing……………………………. I think the better the people around him play, the better he plays……………………………… I think he has very, very good potential. And, I'm pleased with his progress."
Through Missouri's first three games, TB Henry Josey's 13.8 yards/carry leads the nation, and his 133.3 rushing yards/game leads the Big 12, and ranks 6th nationally. He'll be asked to carry the load again, as the Tigers are extremely thin behind him. Earlier this week, Coach Pinkel talked about Josey.
"When you can get him in space, he can really make some things happen," said Coach Pinkel, speaking of Josey. "And, he's a fun guy to watch! He's got great speed, and acceleration. He's certainly a player that's gotten a lot better, and he has a great future."
Junior slot receiver T.J. Moe is Missouri's leading receiver, and his 5.33 receptions/game rank 7th in the conference. Senior Wes Kemp is averaging 3.33 receptions/game, and sophomore Marcus Lucas is averaging 17.3 yards/reception.
Missouri junior punter Trey Barrow leads the Big 12, and ranks 5th nationally, with a punting average of 48.5 yards/punt. He's been especially adept at pinning opponents deep in their own end.
The strength of Missouri's defense is up front, where DT Dominique Hamilton leads the way. He's off to a great start in his senior season, with 13 tackles and a fumble recovery. DE Brad Madison has 5 TFLs through three games, including 3 sacks, which is tied for 2nd in the conference, and 11th in the country, to go along with a QB hurry and a forced fumble.
Sophomore CB E.J. Gaines has garnered 13 tackles, and has an interception and a pass-break-up, as well. The Tigers need Kip Edwards and Matt White to be healthy, and to play their best.
Missouri is ranked 4th in the Big 12 in total defense, and 3rd in rushing defense. The Tigers are 4th in total offense within the Big 12, and are 5th in the conference in both scoring defense (14.3 points/game) and scoring offense (38.7 points/game), as they head into conference play.
"Obviously, we're going to have to play our very, very best," said Coach Pinkel, looking forward to this week's game. "It's all about preparation. We have to play very well against those guys. I think we became a better football team last week. Hopefully, we're a better team. We want to play our best football game this week. And hopefully, we'll play well this week. That's the one chance you have of competing against these guys, and that is you've got to play well. They're going to make some plays. You've got to understand that. But, we've got to make some too. That's our challenge."
Yes. That is the Tigers' challenge. Earlier in the week, the Missouri players appeared to be focused, and determined. They're still not as healthy as they'd like to be for this game, but most of the players and coaches agreed that Missouri played their best game of the season last week. The team seems determined to carry their focus and the momentum from last week into the conference season.
Will Missouri's defensive line be able to contain the Sooners on the ground, and pressure Landry Jones? How will Missouri's young secondary hold up against Oklahoma's explosive wide-outs? Will Missouri's offensive line give Henry Josey room to run, and James Franklin time to throw? Will Franklin demonstrate continued growth, and play the game of his life?