What went right: MU football, 2004

After as disappointing season as the one Missouri had this year, picking out a few bright spots is a difficult task. Still, we bravely carry on, selecting three highlights that should give Missouri fans hope. Check inside for the high points of the season and Inside Mizzou's picks for players of the year.

Five wins overall, three in conference play. A developing quarterback and a suddenly strong defense.

That must be Missouri's record after Oct. 9, their matchup against Baylor, right? Not so much.

In a season that began with unbounded potential and ended with frustrating disappointment, the Tigers missed their best shot at the Big 12 North crown since the conference expanded and division play began in 1996. Finishing 5-6, Missouri even missed a chance to play in a bowl game in back-to-back years.

Instead of preparing for the conference championship or a bowl right now, the program is reeling, its coach under fire and its most experienced returning tailback gone. This isn't the happiest time to be a Missouri fan, but take heart: good times may be on the horizon. Here's why…

Defense demands dominance

The weak point (or at least one of them) for the Tigers for as long as this writer can remember has been the defense. That all changed this season; despite allowing Iowa State to rack up significant yards in the season finale, the Tigers held on to their status as the best defense in the league, allowing 301.4 yards per game. (Second-place Oklahoma allowed 301.5 yards per game, one yard more over the course of the season.) The pass defense also led the conference and was fourth nationally, allowing 149.3 yards per game.

The scoring defense finished a respectable third in the conference and 23rd nationally, allowing 19.5 points per game. The rushing defense was the lone weak link despite the strength of the defensive line; it finished eighth in the conference and 63rd in the country, allowing 152.1 yards per game. (The rush/pass stats make sense; the Tigers did not face Texas Tech, Texas A&M or Oklahoma State, the conference's top three passing teams. They did face Nebraska, Texas and Kansas, three of the top four rushing teams in the Big 12.)

In a season full of surprises, this was one of the few pleasant ones. The 4-3 defense paid dividends, while a 3-4 look on passing downs shut down opposing aerial attacks more often than not. The Tigers were also strong in the turnover department; they picked off 15 passes, third most in the conference.

There were strong efforts throughout the unit, but one stood out more than the others. (Look below for that.) Seven players were consistent contributors on the defensive line, including sophomore end Brian Smith, who finished in a tie for second in the conference with seven sacks. Senior linebacker James Kinney became the school's all-time leading tackler, and some new faces stepped up at cornerback.

The defense did just about everything it could this year. Any blame given to that unit is misplaced.

Wide receiver corps steps up

One of the most pressing question marks before the season began, this group turned in some solid performances. Led by junior Sean Coffey, who overcame two seasons of inconsistency to set a Missouri single-season touchdown reception mark, the receivers had a lot go right for them this year.

That said, Missouri was not the most effective team through the air. Junior quarterback Brad Smith struggled to adjust to the coaching staff's increased emphasis on passing the ball, having some brutal statistical efforts along the way. When Smith suffered, his receivers did, too, but there were still standout performances along the way.

Coffey leads in that respect. He was Missouri's lone deep threat the majority of the season, racking up 39 catches for 648 yards and 10 touchdowns along the way. It's fair to say Coffey was not a threat every minute of every game, and his stats reflect that; he had two catches in three of Missouri's games this season. Still, in each of those, he scored a touchdown. His 51-yard catch and run for a score against Colorado was the offense's best play of the season, and his two touchdown grabs in a span of four minutes of the second quarter against Kansas State appeared to sew up a win against the Wildcats, but it was not to be.

While Coffey found the end zone so many times and got the glory, senior Thomson Omboga did a lot of the dirty work to get the Tigers to paydirt. Omboga finished with 39 catches for 392 yards, but never found the end zone. As the slot receiver, Omboga rarely had opportunities downfield or in the red zone, so the numbers are not as impressive as they could be. Still, he was the most sure handed of the receivers and was a leader throughout the season.

Sophomore Brad Ekwerekwu had a quiet season, finishing fifth on the team with 22 grabs for 195 yards. He also didn't find the end zone and was overshadowed by the small amount of playing time freshman William Franklin received. The Vashon grad caught six balls for 174 yards and a touchdown and should be a focal point of the passing game in 2005.

A future with potential

Despite some shortcomings on the field, coach Gary Pinkel and his staff continues to rack up talent on the recruiting trail. Several young players stepped up, including redshirt freshmen Martin Rucker and Adam Spieker.

Rucker, a surprise starter at tight end, was second on the team with four touchdown grabs. He became quieter as the season went on but was still a strong dual threat.

Spieker, meanwhile, appeared primed to start a new offensive line tradition with fellow redshirt Tyler Luellen; that didn't exactly work out. Luellen lost his job at tackle a few weeks into the season, but Spieker held onto his, starting all 11 games at center. The offensive line suffered through inconsistency this season, but Spieker and Luellen fared well, considering their inexperience.

There were other freshmen stepping up, too; tailback Marcus Woods made some big plays when given the chance and appears to have the inside track on the starting job next year after junior Damien Nash left the team. (Woods and freshman tailback Tony Temple will get a chance to prove themselves in training camp this season -- a position battle to keep an eye one during spring ball.) Defensive end Lorenzo Williams made many plays off the bench, finishing with 21 tackles and a sack. Specialist Adam Crossett became Mr. Everything, handling all three aspects of the kicking game by the end of the season.

But one player on the way might have Missouri fans the most excited. Quarterback Chase Daniel is the leader of the nation's best high school team, a confident passer that seems to fit the Missouri passing model perfectly. He will have to beat out freshman Chase Patton to get a chance to do that, but that sort of training camp competition will be fantastic for the program.

Similarly, the emergence of other players -- redshirts-to-be tailback Jimmy Jackson, wide receiver Jerrill Humphrey, offensive lineman Kyle Riggs and defensive lineman Stryker Sulak -- give Missouri fans plenty of reasons to hold out hope another few years.

Inside Mizzou's MVPs

Offensive MVP: Sean Coffey

Coffey went from offensive afterthought to Missouri's best receiving threat, setting a single-season touchdown mark along the way. Coffey will be the highlight of a receiving corps that returns all of its members but Thomson Omboga and should prove a reliable target as Brad Smith continues to fine-tune his passing game.
Also receiving consideration: Smith, Omboga, Scott Paffrath

Defensive MVP: Jason Simpson

There are many choices here, but Simpson was simply the Tigers' most consistent player, no matter the position. Simpson finished with 98 tackles, second behind the record-setting James Kinney. He continues to be a threat all over the field: he recorded 15 tackles for loss, two sacks and six pass breakups. He made the move from whip to free safety without a problem and will be the lynchpin of a refashioned secondary next season.
Also receiving consideration: Kinney, Nino Williams, C.J. Mosley

Special teams MVP: Adam Crossett

Crossett wins by default, after every other candidate dropped out of sight. By the Tigers' 10th game of the season, Crossett had gone from handling kickoffs to being in charge of all three aspects of the kicking game. He's not flashy -- he made just one field goal and averaged a pedestrian 39.4 yards per punt -- but he has a strong leg and did everything the coaching staff asked of him. How many jobs he holds onto next season is up in the air, but Crossett was the man this year.
Also receiving consideration: Zach Strom, Thomson Omboga

Glutton for punishment? Check back Wednesday to find out what went wrong this season, as well as Inside Mizzou's picks for the most disappointing players of 2004.

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