THE QUESTION was shouted to John Shetley in the waning moments of the rout. Shetley, a beefy, senior environmental studies major at Missouri, is responsible for striking Big Mo, the upright, six-feet-in-diameter drum that sits on the sideline at Tigers games. ¬∂ What's the proper term, he was asked, for a big-ass drum like that? ¬∂ "A big-ass drum," replied Shetley, who then raised his mallet and smote Big Mo six times in celebration of another takeaway. With just under three minutes to play, Missouri had just collected its fourth interception of Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell, the final indignity in the Tigers' 41--10 blowout last Saturday that, in keeping with the theme of this college football season, defied expectations from the get-go.
This Big 12 showdown between two of the nation's most prolific spread offenses figured to be an aerial orgy, right? So what happened? During yet another turbulent week that saw No. 2 South Florida fall at Rutgers, No. 6 South Carolina vanquished at home to Vanderbilt and No. 10 Cal collapse in a loss to UCLA—vanishing from the national title picture just days after being so close to the No. 1 ranking that the Bears could taste it—Missouri coach Gary Pinkel went all Bill Parcells in Columbia. The 15th-ranked Tigers, boasting the fifth-ranked passing attack in the land, decided the time was right to play ball control, rushing 50 times for 212 yards. Quarterback Chase Daniel, who had averaged 45 passes in his first six games, threw 19 times (completing 14, for 210 yards and a TD) and was ecstatic afterward. His modest line proved "we're not just a throw-it-around-50-or-60-times-a-game team," he said.
Before setting foot on Faurot Field, a.k.a the 'Zou, 22nd-ranked Texas Tech had piled up a nation-leading 500.4 passing yards and 50 points per game; Missouri was No. 100 in pass defense. So what happened? The Tigers put together possibly the most impressive defensive performance of the seven-year Pinkel era, limiting the Red Raiders to a touchdown and a field goal. Yes, Harrell completed 44 of his 69 passes for 397 yards, but they were largely quiet yards between the 20s. Remarkably, Tech never ran a play in the red zone.
In addition to throwing the four picks—one more than he had tossed in 347 attempts going in—-Harrell was sacked three times, twice on the same fourth-quarter possession that resulted in fourth-and-43. Walking off the field following that soul-killing series, his head bowed, Harrell was the picture of a beaten man. His body language did not go unnoticed by the Tigers.
"You could see it in his demeanor," exulted senior strong safety Cornelius (Pig) Brown. "Our coaches always tell us, 'Make 'em want to quit. Be a nightmare.'"
Growing up in Adel, Ga., Brown was a voracious eater who failed to keep a tidy room. His mother pinned the nickname on him. And there was something greedy and porcine about the way Pig flew around the field on Saturday, as if intent on making every tackle. As it was, he racked up 14 (4 1/2 for losses), intercepted a pass and broke up three others.
As Pig and the aggressive Tigers D harassed Harrell, Daniel cheered from the sideline. On his head rested a Mizzou ball cap, and in that haberdashery lies a short but telling story.
I WAS WALKING by his office on a Tuesday, and he was whistling," Daniel recalls. "And I thought, This is the perfect time to ask."
So the quarterback poked his head into Pinkel's sanctum and, after being invited to take a seat, repeated a request he had been making for three years. "I asked him if the quarterbacks could wear [baseball] hats on the sideline," Daniel says. "It's something I did in high school, something I'm comfortable with, something I like to do."
For two years Pinkel had said no. On this afternoon, three days after the Tigers had won 38--25 at Ole Miss to go to 2--0, the coach said, "Let me think about it."
I give up, Daniel thought. But the following Saturday, two hours before Mizzou kicked off against Western Michigan, quarterbacks coach David Yost told Daniel, "Hey, you guys can wear your hats."
Such are the tiny increments by which change is measured under Pinkel, whose obstinacy, even in a profession full of hardheaded men, has long stood out. While he remains stubborn about certain things—what's up with Missouri's insistence on running every play out of the shotgun, even on the goal line and in short-yardage situations?—he has yielded in others.
"When I got here," says nosetackle Lorenzo Williams, a fifth-year senior, "guys were more about themselves than they were about the team. Right now [Pinkel's] got 118 guys ready to fight for him every time we step on the field. I wouldn't say he's mellowed, but he does trust this team more."
Gary Pinkel, you stand accused of having softened. How do you plead? "The structure of the program, the discipline—none of that has changed," he says. After a pause, he adds, "I've changed. I've let my guard down. I make it a point to talk to my players more. I hug 'em more, I'm in their world more. And I've never enjoyed coaching more."
The catalyst was a tragedy. In July 2005, Aaron O'Neal, a 19-year-old linebacker from St. Louis, collapsed during a voluntary workout. O'Neal went into full cardiac arrest and died shortly thereafter. "I was never really close to him," says the coach, "and then he was gone. Losing AO made me realize I needed to let my guard down."
To this day O'Neal appears in the team's media guide and on its roster. His death "changed Gary's perception of what a relationship should be between a coach and a player," says media relations director Chad Moller.
"It was like a wall came down," Daniel adds. "He still wants us to be the most disciplined team in the country. But he's chilled out. He's gained perspective."
He gave in, for instance, on the hat issue. What else? Last season he instituted Victory Sunday: When the Tigers win, they don't have to practice on Sunday. He established a leadership council, consisting of players whose input he seeks on matters ranging from discipline to uniform choices. (Black pants or gold?)
Even longtime critics of Pinkel's game management were delighted and encouraged on Saturday by his willingness to take what Tech was giving the Tigers, even if it meant a radical departure from his offensive comfort zone. Tech's "clamping down," in Pinkel's words, on Mizzou's outside receivers, "left some running lanes open." In filling those lanes, the Tigers scarcely missed senior tailback Tony Temple, who aggravated a sprained ankle in Wednesday's practice. A committee of fill-ins took turns gashing the Red Raiders, the most conspicuous being Jimmy Jackson, a 5'9" junior who carried a dozen times for 59 yards and three touchdowns.
Leaving the little room where he addressed reporters, the 55-year-old Pinkel crossed paths with Daniel. The two briefly embraced. "You saw that hug," the junior quarterback said, a half hour later. "He's come a ways."
IF PINKEL has run a more relaxed program over the past two seasons, it is also because he has a strong foundation in place. He has a keen eye for talent and is one of the best recruiters in the business. Here are a few examples.
The Franchise: A Longhorns fan growing up—his older sister Lynsey went to Texas—-Daniel wasn't heavily recruited by Mack Brown. When quarterback Ryan Perrilloux jilted the Longhorns for LSU, Texas made belated overtures to Daniel, but he stuck by his commitment. It didn't hurt that Mizzou's offense was nearly identical to the attack Daniel led at Southlake Carroll outside Dallas.
The Tandem: Tight ends Martin Rucker (47 receptions for 525 yards and three touchdowns) and Chase Coffman (37, 394, three) have NFL bloodlines. Rucker, the brother of Carolina Panthers defensive end Mike Rucker, nearly followed Mike to Nebraska but thought he'd get more touches in Missouri's spread offense. After last season Martin came close to declaring for the NFL draft but returned, believing this year's team would be something special. He felt even better about his decision when the Tigers crushed the Cornhuskers 41--6 on Oct. 6. Coffman is the son of former Green Bay Packer Paul Coffman. Chase looked long and hard at Kansas State, where his father played, but chose Missouri for "the atmosphere—and the offense they were running." The Tigers' coaches promised to find creative ways to get him the ball, and have kept their word.
The Burner: Redshirt freshman Jeremy Maclin is a multipurpose weapon and future Heisman candidate. Dude. Can. Fly. His decision to sign with Mizzou was a coup for Pinkel, who, due largely to the failures of his predecessors, has struggled to attract elite athletes from St. Louis. Maclin has overcome a rough upbringing (he was taken in by a surrogate family when his mother had trouble making ends meet) and a knee injury that cost him all of the '06 season. Looks as if he's all the way back. Going into the Tech game, Maclin ranked fourth in the nation in all-purpose yardage (209.8 yards per game), and on Saturday he scored his team-leading ninth touchdown on a 57-yard reception. Though listed as a wideout, he also returns kicks, takes direct snaps out of the shotgun and gets touches on options and reverses.
NO CONFERENCE better embodies the turmoil and upheaval of this season than the Big 12, on and off the field. There was No. 4 Oklahoma on Saturday, fending off one-win Iowa State 17--7. There was Nebraska, five days after the school canned athletic director Steve Pederson, getting waxed at home by Texas A&M, whose coach, Dennis Franchione, had been charging boosters $1,200 for a now-discontinued secret newsletter. From the Cornhuskers' woes to Coach Fran's prose to Mike Gundy's "I'm a man!" meltdown at Oklahoma State, the Big 12 is college football's version of Soap Net.
Less plausible than many As the World Turns plots: the sight of Kansas, a 19--14 winner at Colorado last Saturday, running its record to a mind-boggling 7--0. At 3--0 in conference, the Jayhawks sit alone atop the Big 12 North. Close behind are the Tigers (6--1, 2--1), who face their bitter rivals on Nov. 24 in Kansas City, Mo., and have only that loss at Oklahoma—a defeat for which some Missouri fans are already plotting revenge.
In keeping with their custom the day before home games, Daniel and his parents met for lunch on Friday at Harpo's, the legendary bar and restaurant in downtown Columbia. While Chase tucked into a plate of spicy fried chicken, his father spoke for many in Tiger Nation when he broached the possibility of a Missouri-Oklahoma rematch in the Big 12 title game.
Vickie, every bit as superstitious as her son, shushed Bill. "Dad," said Chase, "I don't want to talk about it. We've got Texas Tech tomorrow."
Can you blame fans for looking down the road? Anything can happen in this season of tumult. Having bonded like never before under Pinkel, who has emerged as a kinder, gentler hard-ass, the Tigers are burning bright. They've got momentum right now, to say nothing of Big Mo.
"I've LET MY GUARD DOWN," Pinkel says. "I make it a point to talk to my players more. And I've never enjoyed coaching more."
"You could see it in his demeanor," Brown said of Harrell. "Our coaches tell us, 'Make 'em want to quit. be a nightmare.'?"
Analysis from Stewart Mandel, Austin Murphy, Cory McCartney and Gene Menez.
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Photograph by Greg Nelson
OPENING UP Daniel directed the Tigers' spread attack while a less obstinate Pinkel (above) had a hug for Jackson.
[See caption above]
GREG NELSON (COFFMAN)
LOADED With the likes of the 6'6" Coffman (45) and the electric Maclin, Missouri doesn't lack for playmakers.
BOB ROSATO (MACLIN)
[See caption above]
PICKED SIX With pressure from linebacker Sean Witherspoon (12), Mizzou's defense intercepted the prolific Harrell four times.