MU shakes bowl loss

Friday, January 2, 2004

SHREVEPORT, La. -- Except for the game itself, Gary Pinkel insisted he wouldn't change a thing.

Despite Missouri's uncharacteristically sloppy showing in a 27-14 Independence Bowl loss to Arkansas on Wednesday night, the Tigers' third-year coach has no doubts that his disciplined approach will pay off in the postseason. And he means next season.

"We're going to be able to learn from this," Pinkel said. "We're not going to change next year how we prepare for a bowl. We have a way we're going to do it and we're going to stick to it, and it's going to work."

Although the Tigers stumbled in the bowl game with two big turnovers, two just as big failed fourth-and-1 conversions and a curious deviation from the running game, Pinkel's way definitely succeeded in the regular season. This was the first winning record in five years for the Tigers (8-5).

"To hang around here and keep plugging away and end up in a bowl game, it means the world to me and my teammates," said Marcus James, a punt returner and wide receiver.

Instead of the uncharacteristic turnovers, Pinkel said the memory he'll carry is that of the team's determination to not give up in the fourth quarter as Missouri at the least put a scare into Arkansas (9-4).

"All of that adversity, that's about as much adversity as I've ever had in a game since I've been a head football coach," Pinkel said. "We had five minutes left and we've got first-and-goal on the 9, and if we could score there and get the ball back, we'd have a chance to win.

"That's a lot different team than the two previous teams I've had."

Missouri was 4-7 and 5-7 in Pinkel's first two seasons. Now, the Tigers appear poised for contending status.

Brad Smith missed by 23 yards becoming the first player in NCAA history to pass for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in a season, but he set the school career total yardage record against Arkansas and he's got two years left. Although he was outplayed in the Independence Bowl by the bigger but just as elusive quarterback Matt Jones, the Razorbacks were impressed.

"Smith is a dangerous player," coach Houston Nutt said. "He should be on your Heisman list."

Added safety Tony Bua: "I think that guy's quicker than a cat."

There are worthy successors waiting at tailback for Zack Abron, the school's career record-holder in yards (3,198) and touchdowns (42). Sophomore Damien Nash was a speedy relief back all year, including the finale, and redshirt recruit Marcus Woods might be just as good.

Some rebuilding is needed on the offensive line, where four players have exhausted their eligibility. But on defense, Missouri will have seven starters back.

Pinkel has been able to build depth in the program to the point that he was able to redshirt several other promising players. Only two freshmen, wide receiver Brad Ekwerekwu and defensive lineman Xzavie Jackson, played prominent roles from last year's recruiting class.

Plus, Missouri appears poised to announce a top-notch recruiting class next month, featuring a handful of players rated in the nation's top 100 by some services.

Next year, when the Tigers open against another Arkansas team (Arkansas State), they'll have all this experience as a road map. Missouri needs to improve its road showing, where it was 2-4 in 2003. Maybe the outlook, too. Although Pinkel fought hard against it, the team likely had a bit of a happy-just-to-be-here syndrome at the bowl game.

That would be understandable, considering Missouri has been bowling only three times in the last 20 years. Arkansas has been six straight years under Nutt, but won only once in the first four tries and this victory ended a frustrating three-game losing streak during which the Razorbacks totaled only 31 postseason points.

Unlike past bowls, this time around it was all-business for Arkansas, with tightened curfew restrictions and a lot less free time. So the winners seemed to have a lot more on the line.

"Most of it is just psychological," Smith said. "Coming to a game like this, with the atmosphere, and then to know that in big-time games you have to have big-time players at every position, that's what I learned."

At the postgame news conference, Smith was every bit as antsy as Pinkel for the building job to be finished. Missouri outgained Arkansas 407-385 in total yardage but was undone by its mistakes and its deviation from the run game. Smith passed 30 times, a high total for this offense.

"Why can't we just skip over losing these kinds of games?" Smith said. "I know when we see the film we're going to see so many missed opportunities.

"But it's a process and this experience will help us."

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