Back in the more innocent days, when Missouri was projected to have a strong season, its matchup against Iowa State was moved from this weekend to Nov. 27. The Big 12 hoped to have a marquee Missouri team make an appearance before a national audience before participating in the conference championship game or a notable bowl game.
Oh, how things have changed. The game still could have plenty significance, but for different reasons. The Cyclones, predicted by the media before the season to be the North's worst club, might have a trip to the championship game on the line. The Tigers, depending on what they do against Kansas next weekend, could have their bowl eligibility up in the air.
Suffice to say, it's not the coming-out party the league expected. Still, the move leaves the Tigers with a bye this week and a long time to think about their recent struggles.
"Our players are getting a few days off and that's wise at this point," coach Gary Pinkel said Monday. "We've had several difficult losses."
None was more frustrating than Missouri's loss to Kansas State, in which they coughed up a 21-point second-quarter lead and were outscored 27-3 in the second half. The Tigers' second-half efforts have been monumentally poor, and many have criticized the coaching staff for being unable to adjust the game plan.
There is plenty to take out of blown leads, but Pinkel would rather learn about his team another way.
"You go back and evaluate them," he said. "You've got to do the right things with the kicking game, offense, defense, you can't give up big plays, you've got to make more big plays. You've got to score when you're in the red zone. There are reasons why those things happen."
That's quite a laundry list, but Missouri has generally struggled in all of those areas. Junior K Joe Tantarelli missed a short field goal in the third quarter that sparked the Wildcat comeback. The offense managed just three points in the second half after fighting through three turnovers to score 21 in the opening 30 minutes. The defense was solid in the first half but could not force a stop or turnover to turn the game around in the second half.
The Tigers stopped most of the Wildcats' big plays, but the one it could not defend would turn the game around. Two plays after Tantarelli's miss, running back Darren Sproles broke through the right side, dodged four defenders and scored from 74 yards out, cutting the Tiger lead to 21-14. After two long touchdown passes to junior WR Sean Coffey sparked the offense in the first half, Missouri could manage nothing of the sort late in the game.
It was the missed opportunities, specifically Tantarelli's missed kick and a 24-yard field goal he made in the fourth quarter after a drive stalled, that frustrated Pinkel the most.
"We moved the ball, made some plays, did some good things," he said. "But we had some scoring opportunities that we didn't take advantage of. You want some touchdowns down there; that's the disappointing part…
"There's reasons why you win and lose football games; this isn't real complicated. My team is doing things that you shouldn't do and that's coaching. Who else do you point to?"
Senior WR Thomson Omboga made an eyebrow-raising statement after the game, suggesting he could see the loss coming in the eyes of his teammates. Missouri had already given away leads of 14 points to Troy and 17 points to Oklahoma State, so Missouri had been there before.
"It feels like it's the same game," freshman TB Marcus Woods said. "We keep making mistakes in the second half, not scoring touchdowns, not putting points on the board."
Pinkel said Monday he could not understand Omboga's viewpoint, as accurate as it turned out to be.
"I don't know how you look somebody in the eyes and notice that," he said. "He was frustrated. We played a very, very good first half and in the second half didn't play as well. The moral of the story is, play better. If you play better, those types of things don't happen."
Pinkel stopped short of blaming his players, suggesting the late-game struggles are simply due to the players not being adequately prepared by the coaching staff.
"I never blame players for anything," Pinkel said. "We always look at ourselves. We don't point fingers. … We always place an emphasis on the fourth quarter. We do that daily in practice. Obviously, it's not working as well."
That leaves the coaching staff with two weeks to get it working.
"It's going to be a long time," Omboga said. "A whole ‘nother week is going to make it worse. It's going to be a long week for me."
Two wins to close the season will make the Tigers bowl eligible and could get them a bid, thanks to the ugly shape of the Big 12 North. Just reaching a bowl will not be enough to please Omboga.
"Not for this team," he said.
"We've got too much talent to be an average team. We're way better than 4-5. A bowl game is going to be good after the season, but it's nowhere near where it should be."