A Game Missouri Could Not Lose

From the reaction of fans both on the net and in ‘real life,' you might think Missouri lost its season opener this past weekend against Illinois. But while the frenzied reaction to the Tigers' near collapse is understandable, they weren't going to lose this game, regardless of any turn of events. The cycle is in their favor.

I know, you think I'm crazy. And after watching four of the strangest hours of football I've seen, perhaps I am still a bit loopy. But of this I am sure: MU was going to win this game, no matter how many turnovers, mistakes, failed conversions or anything else it took to get there.

College sports – and to a lesser extent, the pros -- work in a funny yet cyclical way. There are discernable sequences that programs tend to follow. Excluding the small percentage of schools that put perennial juggernauts on the field – Southern Cal, Ohio State and Florida, for example – and those that stink every year, almost every program enters each season with varying levels of momentum, increased or decreased confidence and desperation for immediate success. For Mizzou, all three of those factors are off the charts in a positive way.

See, this is a season of desperation for Gary Pinkel and his program. The Tigers need to win now, and win big. Illinois, meanwhile, is a few years behind Mizzou in its cycle. Ron Zook is in his third year, coming off a pair of dreadful seasons, and is relying heavily on droves of young talent that will serve UI well in the years to come – but not this year. Illinois is a year or two away from being in MU's shoes in terms of having such a confluence of experienced talent and expectation.

The Illini don't need to win big this season. Like MU under Pinkel a few years ago, they are hoping to win more games than they lose, even if that means 7-5, while daydreaming about what type of accomplishments their young talent could be capable of producing in a couple of years.

Another way of looking at it: when handicappers analyze point spreads, the first factor they try to analyze is motivation. Which team needs to win more? Which team has been through struggles and sees themselves as having their last or best – or both – chance of having their dream season. This is Mizzou's chance.

So I'm confident that even had Pig Brown not intercepted freshman backup Eddie McGee to seal that game with less than a minute left, even had Illinois scored a touchdown to go ahead by one, junior Chase Daniel would have found a way to move the ball downfield quickly and decisively and senior Jeff Wolfert would have nailed the game-winner. Because they had no other choice.

There was no way they could lose this game.

A loss would have represented a painful step backwards in the evolution of Missouri football. I'm not saying Illinois' group of gifted young players didn't want badly to win, but they certainly weren't being dogged by the incessant, panicked feeling of not wanting to see a dream for which they have worked so long and hard slip away before it even got a chance to get going.

"I'm certainly happy how the team had enough grit to fight through some adversity and find a way to win the game in the fourth quarter," Pinkel said. "We made plays when we had to, and we were lucky to come out of here with a win."

Daniel, meanwhile, suggested this wouldn't be the last time we'll see this team engaged in such a wild and gut-wrenching game. And given the still-shaky defense and the coaching staff's propensity for throwing the ball and not milking the clock while in the lead, it's safe to say his prediction was a solid one.

Speaking of Daniel, his was a courageous performance. It's rare the quarterback is the toughest player on the team, but that may be the case here. His mad scramble for 17 yards with five minutes left resulted in a vicious hit that had him thinking he was back in Texas, but it also helped Mizzou hold onto the ball a bit longer, taking time off the clock and moving the ball into Illinois territory.

It's safe to say the same inherent desperation that sent Daniel racing up the middle of the Edward Jones Dome turf wouldn't have fueled a freshman quarterback such McGee in a similar down and distance. He said afterwards that he "heard" about that hit and about the penalty two plays later when he returned to the field, joining backup Chase Patton in an unintentional, yet comedic two-quarterback formation. Asked to reiterate his statement, the slightly concussed Daniel said, "Yeah, I heard about it.

Mizzou might not have been in that position had the staff not elected to go for two while leading by seven earlier in the game. It was a surprising decision by Pinkel, and it's already been a hot topic for fans angered by having to gnaw through such a stressful game. It also may have produced the first chapter of what could be an entertaining back-and-forth to follow all season long, between Pinkel and Kansas City Star columnist Jason Whitlock.

In the post-game presser, Whitlock questioned Pinkel about the odd call not once, but twice. Pinkel explained he based the decision on what his chart told him. That wasn't good enough for Whitlock, never one to shy from the awkwardness of confrontation. Pinkel, either realizing he'd made a mistake or annoyed by the second-guessing – or both – was clearly irritated. Whitlock's critical column in today's paper didn't pull any punches, either. Suffice it to say, these two won't be sharing a table at the Great Wall anytime soon.

There was one more question that bothered the coach: Is it going to be difficult to enjoy this win? It was a fair question, given how a lesser team nearly overcame a huge deficit and took a big bite out of a season expected to produce a storybook culmination of years of hard work and struggles.

"Don't even go there," Pinkel said. "In my business, you enjoy a win."

The question is, how many more wins will there be this season, and how many of them will leave us sweat-soaked as the final seconds tick away?

Another analogy: teams that win the national championship in college basketball usually have one serious scare earlier in the tournament, one last second-win. I'm not saying MU is going to win the national title, but rather my point is that good, veteran teams with high expectations often create momentum and confidence from close calls.

No matter how many close calls there may be this season, my money is on Mizzou's coaches and players to come through in a pinch far more often than they'll surrender to defeat.

Because they've got too much invested not to win.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This has been yet another complimentary article from InsideMizzou.com. Subscribers receive access to all of our top-notch coverage as well as the entire Scout.com national network and our 10-month per-year, info-packed Inside Mizzou Magazine.

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