I'm done trying to figure this team out.
Attempting to accurately assess the value of this Tiger squad is a futile practice. Because as thoroughly impressive as Missouri's 38-12 victory on the road at Kansas State was, I'm not so sure many questions were answered on Saturday in Manhattan.
Instead, we'll have to wait and see what happens next weekend against Iowa State. We'll have to see exactly what Missouri team shows up to its home finale. We'll have to see whether the Tigers can put together a complete game in consecutive weeks for the first time in two months.
We'll have to see if, after this shot in the arm, the Tigers are capable of dropping the Jekyll-and-Hyde act to finish the season.
What we do know, as a result of yesterday's dominant win, is that the Tigers put a serious damper on Kansas State's chances of a Big 12 North title. Never mind the fact that MU's own hopes of securing a division crown—although mathematically slim—were officially terminated when Nebraska beat Kansas hours later.
The Tigers earned a crucial win at Kansas State—and did so in a fashion far easier and more well-rounded than expected.
Playing defense more reminiscent of its efforts two weeks prior at Colorado, Missouri (6-4, 2-4) at least temporarily exorcised the demons unleashed by its collapse versus Baylor. The Tigers held Kansas State, which boasted the conference's second-best running attack, to a mere 112 yards on the ground, almost 80 yards below their season average.
The key was putting the clamps on the Wildcats' best offensive player.
MU did an excellent of filling gaps and pursuing down the line of scrimmage to shut down tailback Daniel Thomas , who came in leading the Big 12 with 108.7 yards per game. In total, the Tigers' unheralded run defense held Thomas to an average of 3.4 yards per carry, his lowest of the season, and just 79 yards on 23 attempts.
With KSU's most potent weapon rendered ineffective, the Tigers' defense was able to force the one-dimensional Wildcats into throwing the ball with unfamiliar frequency, while the MU offense finally managed to shake off its much-publicized second-half malaise.
The performance the Missouri offense put on during the first 30 minutes against Kansas State (6-5, 4-3) was nothing out of the ordinary. Quarterback Blaine Gabbert blistered the KSU secondary with scoring strikes of 54 and 16 yards to receiver and security blanket Danario Alexander to give the Tigers a 17-6 advantage heading into the half.
For MU fans and coaches alike, however, the commanding lead was no more fulfilling than the prospect of the Tigers giving it away just as quickly in the final two quarters was a distinct possibility. The fears were nearing much too close to reality when KSU kicker Josh Cherry kicked the last of his four field goals to cut the Missouri lead to five with less than a minute left in the third.
"I was thinking what you were thinking," head coach Gary Pinkel told reporters later.
But for the first time in five conference games, the Tigers summoned the intestinal fortitude to counter the second-half punches of the opposition, beginning with the third scoring hook-up between Gabbert and Alexander.
Whatever wind the 80-yard pass-and-catch didn't take from Kansas State's sails was surely eliminated by a pair of fourth-quarter rushing touchdowns by running back Derrick Washington to put the game out of reach.
After the utterly disheartening loss to Baylor, this was a game the Tigers had to have. In the days prior to their departure for Manhattan, fan and media dissension and internal unrest were only worsening a season already on the brink.
Yet Missouri went on the road and conquered a team that had much more to play for—and the Tigers did so with gusto, playing arguably their best and most inspired game to date.
In the process, Missouri ruined the Wildcats' attempt at an undefeated season at home. Previously unbeaten in five games at Bill Snyder Stadium this season, Kansas State was vying for its first spotless campaign at home since 1999, when the Wildcats and head Bill Snyder rode an 11-1 record to a No. 7 ranking to end the season.
Saturday also marked a number of other noteworthy accomplishments. With the win, the Tigers, although not yet guaranteed a place in the postseason, earned bowl eligibility for a school-record fifth consecutive season.
Pinkel, once a whipping post for a number of fellow Big 12 coaches, gained his first win in six tries over Kansas State head coach Snyder. Prior to his retirement in 2006, Snyder had beaten Missouri 13 straight times dating back to 1993.
With two games remaining, Missouri now has a chance to finish with a flurry. Two very winnable games remain, and if the Tigers can topple a solid Iowa State team at home and then conclude with a win over floundering rival Kansas in Kansas City, this program will have won eight or more games for the fourth season in a row. In the 120-year history of Missouri football, that has never been achieved.
But before the Tigers can celebrate any school firsts, they would be well-advised not to make too much of their win over the favored Wildcats. Though another Big 12 North title is no longer available, there's plenty left to play for, which means there's ample time for Missouri to pull another 180.
An 8-4 record in 2009 would certainly qualify as having exceeded the expectations of those who insisted MU would have to rebuild this season. But to reach that point, the Tigers need to shed the inconsistency that has plagued the conference portion of the season and soured those who drank the Kool-Aid after Missouri's 4-0 start.
"Coach Pinkel told us we saved Missouri football, pretty much," revealed Alexander, who compiled 200 yards on 10 catches against Kansas State in his push to become the Big 12's offensive player of the year. "We saved the integrity of our program."
Perhaps that is true; perhaps it isn't. But who's to say that integrity won't need to be restored at this time next week, after another disappointing performance at home? If we've learned anything about these Missouri Tigers, it's that they can look like the division's best team just as easily as they can its worst.
Next Saturday, the Tigers could play as well as they did in Manhattan. On the other hand, a performance similar to the one against Texas is a possibility. Missouri is inconsistent on both sides of the ball, and it's likely the best solution out there is a 3-0 conclusion to the season.
Yes, Missouri played well against Kansas State, but it's anybody's guess as to how that will translate over the season's final two weeks. With this team, nothing is a given, and Saturday—however pleasant the outcome may have been—did nothing to disprove that.
That much we know for sure.
Photo credit: Parker Eshelman/Columbia Daily Tribune