Gary Pinkel, Missouri Tigers Struggle for Answers After Latest Collapse

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Gary Pinkel, Missouri Tigers Struggle for Answers After Latest Collapse

In retrospect, I can think of endless ways in which I could have better spent my Saturday afternoon.

It was the perfect late spring, er, I mean early autumn, day. There wasn't a cloud in the sky. Faurot Field was soaked in mid-afternoon sunshine. Tailgaters littered every crevice of the Missouri campus.

And the unseasonably beautiful conditions in Columbia had more than 65,000 at Memorial Stadium feeling it.

The setting for my first game since leaving MU as a graduate some seven years ago couldn't be beat.

The mood seemed so jovial and carefree. And when kickoff between Missouri and the hapless Baylor Bears commenced shortly after 1 p.m., an easy Tigers win seemed all but imminent.

Nearly four hours, infinite official reviews, and an early November sunburn later, I was sorry I hadn't chosen to pour bleach into my eyes instead.

After all, when compared to what I saw take place on the field, it would've achieved roughly the same goal, only it could be argued the lingering effects would be less painful.

Teams, good teams—heck, even mediocre teams—just don't lose to Baylor at home. The Bears have won just two Big 12 road games since 2005.

Even better, prior to Saturday, Baylor had racked up a mere 10 total conference victories over the past eight-plus seasons—and only 13 since the inception of the Big 12 in 1996.

And a team like Missouri—one that looked dominant a week prior in an attempt to jumpstart its season—certainly doesn't go down to the current edition of the perennial cellar-dwelling Bears.

Injured quarterback Robert Griffin III , without doubt the best player on the team, was a spectator on the sidelines. In each of its three previous conference games, all losses, the Bears had failed to score more than 10 points. Baylor was ranked at or near the bottom of the Big 12 in almost every major statistical category.

To boot, the Tigers had beaten Baylor the previous seven meetings by an average of 15 points.

When you think about it, this should have been a mismatch. And for a half, it surely was. But those stats and history were all thrown out the window during the final 30 minutes.

Plus, anyone who follows Missouri football is well aware of the program's penchant for falling apart at the seams in second halves of games.

The 2009 Tigers are certainly no exception. And at no other point this season was that clearer than in Saturday afternoon's inexplicable and demoralizing 40-32 loss to Baylor .

In fact, the only thing more preposterous than the Tigers' latest second-half collapse was the weather, which reached a sometimes uncomfortable 80 degrees some three weeks before Thanksgiving.

Two weeks ago, I fired off some unbridled anger in a rant following Missouri's lopsided loss to Texas. However, given the inferiority that had characterized Baylor's season through its first eight games, this game may register more so on my bitch-o-meter.

And for good reason.

Before I begin, I certainly don't want to discount the Tigers' offensive proficiency in the first half, which was impressive despite another sad performance from the running game.

Quarterback Blaine Gabbert looked as good as he has all season, completing 11 of his first 12 passes for an awesome first two quarters that produced 322 yards, including 84 alone on a touchdown toss to receiver Danario Alexander .

Alexander piled up 171 first-half yards en route to a career-high 214 yards on 13 catches.

Speaking of Alexander, the senior continues to make his case for Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year. Through nine games, Alexander is third in the conference in catches (71) and second in receiving yards (1,038), trailing only Jordan Shipley of Texas, and he is on pace to blow by Jeremy Maclin's single-season yardage record (1,260) set last season.

And then there was the duo of Jared Perry (7 rec., 145 yards) and Wes Kemp , who combined to form a worthy complement to Alexander.

And when Kemp's nifty end zone dance in the waning seconds of the half was upheld for a score to build MU's lead to 11, it appeared the Tigers would be heading into next weekend's showdown with Kansas State with a chance to grab a share of the Big 12 North lead.


Instead, Missouri (5-4, 1-4) turned in another lethargic and uninspiring second half that, for all intents and purposes, ended its pursuit of a third straight division title. And the manner in which the choke job transpired is quickly becoming all too familiar.

For the fifth consecutive game, the MU offense did not score a touchdown in the second half.

As was the case the previous four weeks, offensive coordinator David Yost failed miserably at adapting to the defense's adjustments, leaving Gabbert and the rest of his unit the ability to do nothing but succumb to the weight of poor play-calling and even poorer execution.

All told, in their five conference games, the Tigers have produced nine points in the second half—all coming on field goals by Grant Ressel.

The last second-half touchdown scored by the MU offense occurred more than six weeks ago, against Nevada on Sept. 25.

But it's not like the offense had a lot of support. The schizophrenic MU defense apparently forgot to take its meds, because save for a few OK moments in the first half, coordinator Dave Steckel's group once again showed crippling inconsistency.

After holding the Bears to a modest 16 points in the first half Saturday, the Tigers permitted Baylor to march 67 yards in nine plays to begin the third quarter.

It was the fourth time this season the MU defense has surrendered a score on the opponent's opening possession of the second half.

And the final two quarters were really a comedy of errors for the defense as much as they were for the offense. Coverage errors abounded. The pass rush, which produced eight sacks against Colorado last weekend, was sluggish at best.

And though Baylor's Nick Florence is arguably a better pure passer than the fleet-footed Griffin, the Tigers made the freshman quarterback look like Peyton Manning.

In just his fifth collegiate start, Florence completed 32 of 43 passes for a school-record 427 yards, giving Baylor its first 300-yard passing performance in the last 26 games.

As far as I'm concerned, once Baylor (4-5, 1-4) trimmed the lead to four to open the half, Missouri's fate was sealed. With MU's offense pulling its usual disappearing act, Baylor was busy scoring on three of its next five drives to seize the lead and take control of the game.

Afterward, MU head coach Gary Pinkel showed some disturbing insight regarding his team's perspective when it reaches the intermission.

“I don’t know if we feel too good about ourselves at halftime. I don’t know,” Pinkel said. “And I know ‘I don’t know’ is not a good enough answer.”

Indeed, it's not. Especially considering the ineptitude with which Pinkel, Yost, and Steckel have tailored the game plan upon emerging from the locker room.

This staff's inability to counter the adjustments being made on the other side of the field is getting old. And it's getting old fast.

Excluding the blowout against Texas, Missouri has led at half time in three of its last four games. The game in which it has trailed after two quarters was the loss against Oklahoma State, when the deficit was only seven points.

However, MU has lost two of those three games, with the lone exception being the win at Boulder that was aided by a huge 33-point lead at the half.

While not mathematically restricted from winning the North division, the Tigers are now certainly on the brink of elimination and missed a golden opportunity at bowl eligibility.

I suppose you could say the season is still plenty salvageable, but wishful thinking may not be enough to straighten out this team's woes in the second halves of games.

What say you, Gary Pinkel?

"One thing that is important when you have problems in this business from week to week is that you fix them," he said. "But as we came out in the second half, regardless of what we do in practice, regardless of what we're emphasizing, we're not doing enough in the second half to win football games."

Well, sure, but what about a solution?

"We'll talk about it as a staff," Pinkel continued. "But we're running out of time."

While you're at it, see if you can't squeeze in an effort to get me a refund for my ticket.

 

Photo credit: Associated Press

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