The first step

Rivalry aside, there is a lot on the line for the Tigers when they host Kansas on Saturday. Despite monumental struggles over the past month, Missouri still has a chance to reach a bowl game and win the Big 12 North. Without a win against the Jayhawks, though, neither goal can be realized.

Four-game losing streaks usually wreck seasons. To a certain extent, that's exactly what has happened for the Tigers, losers of their past four. Missouri has gone from sexy preseason pick to Big 12 afterthought in the span of two months.

To senior tackle Scott Paffrath, the fact the Tigers were in all of the games they lost is the most frustrating of all.

"If we were playing two halves, I don't think we'd be having a problem," Paffrath said. "We're playing one half right now and that's not good enough in this league…

"That's what's so disappointing about the way we've played this year. It's not like we've gotten beat; we've let these games go."

Losing streaks of Missouri's caliber pale in comparison to what Kansas has suffered through this season. After a 2-0 start, the Jayhawks hit the wall once league play opened and have lost seven of their past eight. While Missouri still has to travel to Ames next week for a game that will likely decide the division, Kansas wraps up its season in Columbia on Saturday. With no bowl game in store this time around, the Jayhawks will be looking to avoid ending their season on such a rough skid.

"This is the one we're looking forward to," Kansas coach Mark Mangino said.

Earlier this week, Missouri coach Gary Pinkel was wary of what the Jayhawks are capable of, particularly defensively. He continually lauded the unit, which is fourth in the conference in scoring and sixth in the league in yards allowed.

"They're playing great defense, without question," Pinkel said. "You saw last week, they were a play away from beating a top 10 football team."

Lax defense and a questionable offensive pass interference call contributed to the Jayhawks coughing up a 10-point fourth-quarter lead in a 27-23 loss to Texas last Saturday.

There isn't much time for the Jayhawks to get things together, but Missouri has a little cushion. After having two weeks to think about blowing a 21-0 lead in a 35-24 loss to Kansas State, the Tigers return refreshed and, according to junior quarterback Brad Smith, refocused.

"As a team, we're emotionally alright," Smith said. "On the field, we're trying to get better at the things we need to get better at. We've come a long way this last week."

Smith will face a Kansas defense that found a way to silence him in the Jayhawks' 35-14 win last season. Smith managed a career low 95 yards of total offense -- 62 passing and 33 rushing -- last season, Pinkel said opposing defenses this season have borrowed significantly from Kansas's efforts in that game.

"I think what people did is they went back and got all the tapes of anybody that's contained (Smith) versus the people that he had big numbers against and studied and analyzed them," Pinkel said. "I anticipated this would happen a little bit, so it didn't surprise me. It's a smart thing to do."

That is the justification Pinkel has used for expanding the passing game this year, although it has not been particularly successful. Missouri is rapidly sliding down the offensive charts, now ranking 61st in the country in scoring offense, averaging 25 points per game.

Kansas, meanwhile, has turned over the offensive reins to Brian Luke, a former fourth-string quarterback turned starter after the Jayhawks' top three quarterbacks went down with injuries. Luke threw for 225 yards against the Longhorns last season, impressing Pinkel along the way.

"Luke, shoot, I thought he played pretty good," Pinkel said. "I know our fourth-team quarterback isn't that good, I guarantee you that."

Already last in the Big 12 in yards per game, the Kansas offense will be without starting running back John Randle. Clark Green, who has 191 yards and no touchdowns on 55 carries, will take Randle's place.

Most of these stats can be thrown out the window this weekend, since the Border War matchup will bring more juice to players on both teams. Although he later skirted his comments by talking about how important beating Kansas is, junior safety Jason Simpson said the outcome matters most every weekend, not the opponent.

"I've always said it doesn't matter who you're playing; it's just another team to go out there and beat," he said. "If you focus on who it is and all the other outside factors, you're not going to focus exactly on what you need to do, which is beat the team."

Still, a solid effort against the Jayhawks would rally the Tiger troops and keep Missouri's bowl and division title hopes alive. Senior linebacker James Kinney, 10 tackles away from setting the school career mark, said the Tigers still have time to turn things around, although the goals are not as lofty as they were before the season.

"I'm pretty upset about how things went, but there's nothing I can do about that right now," Kinney said.

"We'll just hopefully get ready and go out there to win these two games. We have to try to get this win; that's more important than any tackle record or anything."


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