Final win serves as reminder of MU's potential

Monday, November 29, 2004

A victory over Iowa State was both satisfying and frustrating for Missouri fans.

By R.B. Fallstrom ~ The Associated Press

At least, Missouri's lost season ended on a positive note.

The Tigers were supposed to be a program on the rise, one that would contend for the Big 12 North title with a Heisman Trophy hopeful at quarterback and a defense that became one of the conference's best. Instead, they entered the season finale on a five-game losing streak that wrecked a mostly promising 4-1 start.

Forced into the role of spoiler for the season finale, they somehow put it all back together for a 17-14 overtime victory over Iowa State Saturday that denied the Cyclones a berth in the conference championship game. It was a victory that gave those in a program a measure of peace, although it also served as a reminder of what might have been.

If the Tigers had ended the losing streak a week earlier against Kansas, they and not Colorado would have been playing Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game.

"It's always good to play well," senior linebacker Henry Sweat said. "But if we'd have just come out and played like we were supposed to play against Kansas, we could be playing in Kansas City this week."

Although the rally came far too late, it was better that than never for coach Gary Pinkel.

"It doesn't erase the disappointments," Pinkel said. "Your record is who you are. We didn't do the things necessary to win football games.

"But what a great way to end it. I wouldn't want to write the script so difficult, but sometimes that's how you grow, that's how you mature."

A.J. Kincade, whose interception sewed up the victory against Iowa State, said it was important to not allow that bad taste to linger all winter.

"We didn't have much to play for, we just wanted to go out there and give it our best," Kincade said. "The main thing was to give the seniors a good win they could leave with and for us to start the next season on."

Pinkel steadily built the program his first four seasons, culminating in an 8-5 record and Independence Bowl appearance after last year. His performance earned a contract extension through 2007 near the end of last season.

Yet he lags behind the man he replaced. Larry Smith took Missouri to consecutive bowl games in 1997 and '98 before falling on hard times.

This year, Pinkel has come under fire for his brusque attitude toward boosters as well as media. More important, he's been criticized for trying to transform quarterback Brad Smith, one of the most dynamic dual threats in the country his first two years, into a dropback passer.

Smith returned to his run-pass roots for the Iowa State game, gaining 101 yards on 21 carries and passing for another 150 yards.

But when Missouri was falling apart, he wasn't nearly as productive and it led to internal strife. Some inside the program believed the season's low point came when Pinkel suspended running back Damien Nash for the Nebraska game, a 24-3 loss, after Nash had made disparaging remarks about unimaginative, predictable play-calling.

That controversy could lead to some staff changes next year. Offensive coordinator Dave Christensen, who has been with Pinkel since he arrived from Toledo, could be in jeopardy.

Smith, who usually keeps his opinions to himself, was upbeat before the Iowa State game.

"I am confident in the program, my teammates, and everyone involved with it," Smith said. "We're definitely disappointed about the way things turned out, but we can look forward to the future."

Three blown double-digit leads kept Missouri out of the postseason picture. The Tigers led Troy 14-0 after two quick touchdowns and never scored again in a 24-14 upset loss. Oklahoma State trailed 17-0 before rallying to win by three, and Kansas State erased a 21-point second-quarter deficit.

Pinkel doesn't mind taking the blame for the slide. After the Kansas loss he repeatedly said he was responsible, and repeated that stance on Saturday.

"As a head football coach, I'm not concerned about myself," Pinkel said. "I'm more concerned about my coaches and my players. That's my biggest concern."

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