To hear Gary Pinkel tell it, some games just mean a lot more than others. To the coach, Missouri's annual border skirmish with Kansas is the most important game of all, even more important than reaching a bowl game. Missouri still has that opportunity but Kansas does not. Following (and bastardizing) Pinkel's logic, does Kansas have more to play for Saturday?
No matter how you break this game down, Missouri holds the edge in talent across the board. That has not mattered much this season, though, as the Tigers have lost games to inferior opponents and blown leads against teams of similar ilk. Kansas clearly falls into the former category, but Missouri has yet to play a game this season with as much on the line.
Kansas is playing for pride. Missouri is, too, but it has other aspirations that might get in the way. Still, a loss to this Jayhawk team would overshadow everything negative that has happened in the Missouri program this year.
Although Pinkel lauded them continually earlier this week, the Kansas defense is not as good as advertised. The Jayhawks show flashes of brilliance, but a representative sample shows why they are a middle of the pack defense in all categories. While the Jayhawks have playmakers at linebacker and cornerback, there is not enough consistency to make this unit a dominant one.
Kansas has a few talented pass rushers that are making an impact. Starting ends Jermial Ashley and David McMillan are tied for the team lead with four sacks apiece. Ashley is 6-5 and McMillan 6-4, so they should be able to win some of the physical battles with Missouri's linemen. The Jayhawks allow 130 rushing yards per game; Missouri should be able to take advantage of them here.
As a group, Kansas' linebackers are among the most talented in the Big 12. Juniors Banks Floodman, Kevin Kane, Gabriel Toomey and Nick Reid all contribute significantly. With 103 tackles, Reid trails only everywhere-at-once-man Barrett Ruud of Nebraska on the conference charts. Reid is, far and away, the most physical defender on the Kansas defense and the kind of player that can make a difference all over the field. Reid has 14 tackles for loss, including three sacks, and an interception on the season. Floodman, Kane and Toomey are also in the top seven on the team in tackles.
Cornerback Charles Gordon, a converted wide receiver who still sees some playing time there (he has 15 catches on the season), is the defense's most athletic performer. With six picks, he has at least twice as many interceptions as anyone in the Big 12 not named Shirdonya Mitchell or Rodney Harris. Only a sophomore, Gordon is still growing as a defender and can be taken advantage of from time to time. Harris, a sophomore safety, also has four interceptions. Senior safety Tony Stubbs ranks second on the team in tackles, trailing Reid by bushels. Despite these players, there are opportunities for the Missouri passing game to expose the Jayhawk secondary, which allows 218.6 passing yards per game.
This could be the best matchup the Tigers have had all season. Missouri boasts the best defense in the Big 12, while Kansas ranks last in offense. Missouri is looking to prove itself again after blowing another second-half lead to Kansas State two weeks ago; Kansas is down to a fourth-string quarterback and without its starting running back this week. All the signs point to a big afternoon for the Missouri defense.
For Missouri's version of Mack Breed, quarterback Brian Luke has done pretty well for himself thus far. A junior, Luke took the reins after Adam Barmann, Jason Swanson and John Nielsen all went down with injuries. He fared well against the Longhorns throwing for 225 yards. Pinkel said he was impressed with Luke's efforts against the Longhorns, but if Luke is capable of putting two strong games together is another question altogether. The Tigers need to get as much pressure on him as early as possible; letting him get settled in could give the Jayhawks the idea they can hang in the game.
John Randle leads Kansas with 540 rushing yards and six touchdowns on 147 carries, but he will be unavailable against the Tigers after experiencing the confusingly gruesome injury of a torn muscle near a major organ, as coach Mark Mangino put it, against Texas. The injury caused internal bleeding, ending the sophomore's season. Junior Clark Green will get the nod in Randle's place; the Jayhawks will miss Randle's ability as a receiver out of the backfield; he is third on the team with 35 catches
Without its main playmaker seeing as much action as he did last season, the receiving corps is less athletic but still potent. Senior Brandon Rideau and junior flanker Mark Simmons are as talented a pair as you will find at most Big 12 schools; they have combined for 86 catches, 1,036 yards and nine touchdowns. Both are deep-ball threats and will test the Tiger secondary more than it has been tested the past month. Keep an eye on Gordon whenever he enters the game; he has just two touchdowns on the season, but he is a threat no matter what side of the ball he is on.
The offensive line is the weak link and must be the focus of the Tiger game plan. Senior center Joe Vaughn is one of the best linemen in the conference, but a lot of inexperience surrounds him. Guard Tony Coker is the only other senior start on the line, but every starter but Vaughn is at least 6-4 and 295 pounds. The line has allowed 21 sacks on the season, ninth in the Big 12; the Tigers must take advantage of this.
Both senior Johnny Beck and freshman Scott Webb have seen action at kicker, but the upperclassman has held on to his job despite making just nine of 15 attempts. Webb handles the extra point duties, making all 25 he has attempted.
True freshman Kyle Tucker handles the punting duties. He has averaged 40.7 yards per boot with a long of just 57 yards.
While the kick return unit is average, Mangino uses Gordon to return punts, giving him another opportunity to make plays. Gordon has not taken advantage of it; he has returned 22 punts for and average of 7.9 yards, with a long of 49.
There is no need to say more about the rivalry aspect of this game. This contest will serve as the Jayhawks' Super Bowl; with no bowl looming, Kansas can either end its season on a five-game losing streak or with a win against its hated rival.
Missouri is in a similar position. The Tigers are teetering on the edge of collapse, but there are many potential positives in this game. The seniors will be playing their last game at home and their final game against Kansas; a loss in those situations would be devastating. As poorly as they have fared this year, Missouri still has a realistic shot at the conference championship game.
To have that chance end at the hands of the Jayhawks would be a fitting end to a frustrating season, but the Tigers should be able to avoid that.