There are several critiques one can level at the Missouri football program right now. One that you can't offer is that coach Gary Pinkel is not concerned with how his players are performing and has lost hope for his team.
On Monday, moments after stating he was pleased with his team's effort, Pinkel went into his most frustrated and flustered rant of the season.
"My biggest disappointment in Saturday's game was to think that I would coach a football team that would give up 14 points in the punting game," he said. "You talk about embarrassing, you talk about an indictment against me as a head football coach and a program that takes pride on one of the measurable probabilities of how you win games...
"You're not gonna win any games doing that. You're not gonna have a chance. You gotta be kidding me."
Pinkel was especially disappointed because he felt the Tigers played well enough in the other two areas of the game to top the Cornhuskers in Lincoln for the first time since 1978.
"Our offense was a lot more productive than theirs was, but they didn't hand us 14 points," Pinkel said. "To think that I would have a football team that would do that is absolutely amazing. We work as hard as at the kicking game as anybody in the country, but guess what? It wasn't good enough."
Missouri uses several of its starters on special teams, a direction that many teams do not go in. Senior LB James Kinney, the defense's emotional and veteran leader, and freshman TE Martin Rucker, one of the offense's top producers, play prominent roles, so talent probably is not an issue. To Rucker, who recorded three special-teams tackles against Nebraska, the problem is a simple one.
"You just can't have breakdowns," he said. "When we analyze it on film, one guy went the wrong way and another guy went by him. (It was) a loss of focus. We just gotta get better with the protection."
Of the Tigers' two punting mistakes, only one of them -- the first -- can really be corrected. In the second quarter with the game tied at 3, a Nebraska rusher broke through a hole in the left side of the line, as it appeared junior S Justin Scott was late in picking up his man. (Scott's blown assignment also led to a blocked punt in the Tigers' loss at Troy.) Sophomore P Matt Hoenes did not have enough time to get the kick off; it was blocked, scooped up and returned 15 yards for a touchdown to put Nebraska up for good.
The second error was simply a mistake by Hoenes, who had the ball slip through his hands, hit him in the chest and bounce to the ground. Hoenes corralled it, but could not get a punt off before he was dropped at the Missouri 15-yard line. Nebraska scored on its first play after the mistake.
Rucker said he first thought Hoenes' flub was another block.
"It was just something that happened," Rucker said. "It's just something that happens to teams around the country and, unfortunately, this weekend it happened to us."
The Tigers have slipped to 10th in the Big 12 in net punting, getting 33.9 yards per punt. Due to a stagnant offense, Hoenes has been forced to punt 31 times since replacing the injured senior Brock Harvey in the conference opener, averaging 36.6 yards per kick. His average is 5.1 yards shorter than what Harvey managed, but Hoenes has been serviceable, considering he is a former walk-on with no collegiate experience until this season.
Still, improvement needs to come for the entire unit as soon as possible. Pinkel said he, the rest of the coaches and the players must work harder to make sure special teams play doesn't sink the Tigers again.
"I placed an emphasis on our team meeting (Sunday) on the kicking game in general," Pinkel said. "You don't have a chance to win any game doing that. I don't care who you play. So you just work harder...
"We (the coaches) obviously didn't do a good enough job. Talk about an impact on a football game…jeez. That's remarkable."