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The final climb MU poised for its first top-five finish since 1960
DALLAS -- Missouri finished its season by routing Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl. The Tigers will soon learn whether the victory in their first Jan. 1 bowl appearance since 1970 helps as much as their lopsided loss in the Big 12 championship game hurt.
Missouri (12-2) was No. 1 in the AP poll and the BCS standings before a 38-17 setback to Oklahoma on Dec. 1, then plummeted to No. 7 in the poll and No. 6 in the BCS. Kansas, which lost to Missouri for the Big 12 North title, ended up drawing the Orange Bowl.
At least one team now ahead of Missouri is guaranteed to lose, with No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 LSU playing for the national championship on Jan. 7. In any case, the Tigers appear to have a strong case for their highest final ranking since they finished No. 5 in 1960, after doing a good job of not allowing the BCS snub to ruin everything.
"We can't change it, we can't be in the Orange Bowl," quarterback Chase Daniel said. "This is the fifth-best bowl in my opinion, and we came away with a dominating win."
A springboard for 2008, too.
Missouri has gone to four bowls in the last five years under coach Gary Pinkel, but the Cotton represents a quantum leap for a long-dormant program. The No. 1 ranking was the school's first since 1960. The last title before Missouri won the North came in the old Big Eight in 1969.
The immediate future appears bright, especially if most or all the five juniors who are seeking input from the NFL -- Daniel, defensive end Stryker Sulak, defensive tackle Ziggy Hood, tight end Chase Coffman and safety William Moore -- return for one more year.
Nose tackle Lorenzo Williams is the only defensive starter who it's certain must be replaced. Six starters should be back on offense, with All-American tight end Martin Rucker and offensive linemen Adam Spieker and Tyler Luellen the toughest to replace.
Tony Temple, the only running back in school history with consecutive 1,000-yard seasons after his record-smashing day Tuesday, is trying to get a medical redshirt fifth year. The appeal is based on his limited play as a freshman, when he had six carries against Nebraska in a late-season game.
Pinkel was 37-35 in his first six seasons at Missouri with losing records three of the first four years, but is 20-7 the last two and has produced the first 12-win season in school history. Still, he knows the tradition he's building remains in its infancy.
In late January, he plans on repeating his game plan from last winter, bringing in the new seniors to replace the leadership of the bunch that is departing. The new recruiting class is perhaps the school's most promising, featuring top quarterback prospect Blaine Gabbert of suburban St. Louis and running back Drew Temple, Tony Temple's kid brother.
"Just because we have this great chemistry this year, just because we have this real tight team, no way it means it's going to happen next year," Pinkel said. "It starts all over again and our players, they'll understand it."
Temple's 281 yards rushing is the second-best total in bowl history, and the yardage total and four touchdowns both broke long-standing Cotton Bowl records, more than compensating for Daniel's worst statistical outing in two years as the starter. But the performance of an overlooked defense may have been more crucial.
Missouri forced five turnovers, controlled the damage by Heisman runner-up Darren McFadden and worked around some terrible field position. Arkansas began drives at its own 42 and 40 and the Missouri 41 in the first half, and had zero points to show for it.
Arkansas entered the game with one of the top offenses in the country, averaging 40 points per game and McFadden had a quiet 105-yard game with a 3-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
"The preparation was amazing," Williams said. "We had great practices, film study was top-notch and guys were knowing what they were going to do before they did."
Moore's 26-yard interception return for a touchdown and a 28-0 lead negated a lost fumble by Temple in the third quarter. Adrian Davis intercepted a Daniel screen pass early in the fourth quarter and Daniel recovered with a helmet hit on the ball, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Colin Brown at the Arkansas 48.
Moore said Williams came up to him during the game and asked for a big play.
"He was like, 'I need a turnover, I need an interception from you,"' Moore said. "I told him [I would] if you would let the quarterback throw the ball.
"We were put to the challenge all week and we rose up."