Growling Pains: Missouri Tigers Show Intestinal Fortitude Against Bowling Green

Ryan FallerAnalyst ISeptember 14, 2009

I wonder what Missouri's practices will look like this week.

With his players puffing out their chests and hooting and hollering in unison, head coach Gary Pinkel dropped an unexpected bomb in the aftermath of a dominating season-opening victory over Illinois: the following week's preparation for Bowling Green would be unlike anything the young Tigers had ever seen.

"When you come out of game like that and have a reasonable amount of success, I'm paid to make sure our team’s ready to play at its highest level," Pinkel said last Monday during his weekly teleconference. "We’re not good enough to take anybody lightly."

Perhaps he should have spoken louder.

In front of its largest crowd for a home opener in more than 30 years, Missouri apparently failed to decipher the meaning behind Pinkel's seemingly cold-hearted but blunt warning.

As they loafed aimlessly through the better part of three quarters against Bowling Green, the Tigers hardly resembled the team that had so thoroughly impressed the nation with what some pundits labeled as the most eye-opening performance of college football's kickoff weekend.

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Instead, they looked like a team who spent a little too much time laminating its own press clippings. In the process, the very toxic element of complacency that Pinkel had so obviously attempted to dispel seeped its way into the minds of his players.

And it was obvious.

Gary Pinkel and his Tigers struggled against Bowling Green (L.G. Patterson/AP)

A two-touchdown favorite, Missouri was expected to encounter even less opposition from the Falcons than it had from Illinois, a preseason Big Ten darkhorse.

But Bowling Green is a perennial power from the Mid-American Conference, which has prided itself on slaying a fair share of BCS teams in recent past.

When the curtain fell on the Tigers' 37-9 shocker in St. Louis, the accolades immediately began rolling in.

Quarterback Blaine Gabbert earned Big 12 Offensive Player of the Week honors and was being anointed after one collegiate start. The rejuvenated defense was being characterized by cute pet names like "The Scorpion." And a receiving corps that lost several members to the NFL was said to have been fully restocked.

In the opener, not much went wrong for Missouri. And it's asinine to think that everything was going to transpire with the same pleasant fluidity for a second straight week.

But regardless, Bowling Green wasn't supposed to produce much of a scare, despite the fact the Falcons had won each of the past two meetings.

Yet, here were the Tigers, trailing 20-6 with the clock winding down on the third quarter. And it's no secret how they got there.

Fresh off his auspicious debut, Gabbert looked like a true sophomore. Nearly perfect seven days prior, Gabbert tap-danced behind a shaky offensive line, fired a frustrating number of incompletions, and committed his first turnover of the season, fumbling deep in MU territory to set up a Bowling Green field goal.

But it's not like Gabbert received much help. A running game that was stuck in neutral for most of the opener failed to switch gears, and receivers that found plenty of room to roam against Illinois had trouble creating separation against a Bowling Green secondary that did a admirable job of executing its coverages.

And then there were the mental mistakes. A razor-sharp focus transformed into a mental block that attributed to several costly penalties, one of which wiped a second-quarter touchdown off the scoreboard.

In short, offensive efficiency was nowhere to be found. The Tigers finished the first half without a third-down conversion, and Gabbert completed only 10-of-21 passes for an appalling 44 yards.

Add to that a sluggish pass rush and an overall modest first-half performance from the defense, and Missouri bandwagon fans were undoubtedly getting ready to jump off as quickly as they got on.

Alas, you could argue that for as poorly as Missouri played for the majority of its game against Bowling Green, this is exactly what the Tigers needed.

In this observer's humble opinion, Saturday's hard-fought 27-20 comeback win tells us as much, if not more, about Missouri than we ever could have hoped to learn from any blowout victory.

For the first time this season, the Tigers were faced with adversity, and for the first time this season they proved they are capable of conquering it.

"It was a gutsy win," said Gabbert, who helped guide the Tigers to their 21st win in their last 23 home games. "It really checked what we're made of, and in the end it's going to make our team better."

Led by the sophomore quarterback, who was 10-of-12 for 128 yards and each of his two touchdown passes in the second half, the MU offense made the necessary adjustments.

With offensive coordinator David Yost showing a refreshingly devout faith to the running game—something that wasn't necessarily always so with his predecessor, Dave Christensen—running back Derrick Washington helped move the chains and sustain drives with a career-high 23 carries, which produced 120 yards and the game-winning score. 

Meanwhile, receivers that were blanketed showed up in time to participate in MU's vaunted game of catch-and-run.

After a 73-yard Bowling Green scoring drive to open the half, the defense decided it had had enough.

Driven by All-American linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who tallied a game-high 14 tackles, the Tigers held an opponent to fewer than 350 yards for the second consecutive week.

Pinkel was right: This team isn't good enough to take any opponent lightly—no matter how strong the Tigers may have appeared to be in Week 1. But this was a game that I'm not so sure this program would have won as recently as two or three seasons ago.

The inexperience on this Missouri team was disguised for one week. Not any more. But perhaps Pinkel's program has matured enough to the point where an abundance of talent is great enough to compensate for mental errors and to deflect the damaging effects of overconfidence.

Or maybe they found out how important a little humility can be.

The Tigers have dropped out of the newest Top 25 poll. But a win that required this much reserve and intestinal fortitude can only be beneficial and prepare Missouri for the gauntlet that is conference play. Pinkel and the Tigers are a better team now than if they would have won by 35.

They're a better team than they were a week ago.

There's no telling what the usually evenly-demeanored Pinkel said in that locker room at halftime. It's possible he rehashed his Illinois postgame speech. Maybe a Gatorade cooler or two were strewn about. Whatever it may have been, it worked.

And afterwards, no one was more relieved to get the win than the head coach.

"I wouldn't want to make a living doing that every Saturday," Pinkel said. "You can grow tremendously from it. I feel fortunate we're 2-0."

But 2-0 the Tigers are, with FCS opponent Furman waiting in the wings. On the surface, it should be an easy win.

However, if we've learned anything thus far about this Missouri team, it's that no game should be guaranteed. Nor is any game ever predictable.

Which should make for another interesting week of practice.

Lead photo: L.G. Patterson/AP