Tigers vs. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Oct. 11, 2008
Tiger AP ranking: 3th
Oct. 11, 2008
Tiger AP ranking: 3th
The joke in Green Bay was that the most useless guy on the sidelines every Sunday was Vince Lombardi. It wasn’t a knock on his coaching ability, but rather recognition of the hall of fame coach’s inexhaustible pregame prep. Lombardi made certain his players were the best-conditioned athletes on the field. He drilled them on the most basic of plays until they could execute them in their sleep. He motivated so completely that his team feared not only losing, but disappointing him in any way. If there was anything in a football game that could be controlled, Lombardi found a way to control it.
Lombardi died of cancer in 1970 at the age of 57. Twenty-seven years later, the Green Bay Packers won Super Bowl XXXI—their first since he had coached them. The city held a parade to honor their heroes, and a photo of the celebration ran in newspapers across the country. Off to the side stood a middle-aged man, a bit removed from the festivities. He wore an overcoat and a brimmed hat and appeared to be taking in the moment with great pride.
The man looked exactly like Vince Lombardi.
In sports, there are things that can be controlled, and then there’s the heebie-jeebie stuff. More often than not, there’s no heebie-jeebie stuff at all—the team that’s expected to win does. Sometimes there’s a single defining heebie-jeebie moment, like the 1980 Notre Dame-Michigan game. On the last play of the game the Irish attempted a 51-yard field goal into the teeth of a 15-mph wind. The wind had been blowing all game, and as the kicker counted his steps from the placeholder, the flags at the top of the goal posts suddenly went limp. Harry Oliver’s boot cleared the uprights by a foot, giving the Fighting Irish a 29-27 victory and leading to many eyewitness accounts of Touchdown Jesus intervention.
Sometimes, there’s no defining heebie-jeebie moment. Something just feels right. Or wrong.
My trip to Columbia began uneventfully. That is, until I realized that my tiger tail was missing. Mizzou fans hang one from their trunks as they make their way to the games. My father always did, anyway, as he drove the two hours on I-70 from St. Louis to Columbia. I continued the tradition, honking at other fans who did the same. But on Thursday I realized that my friend Kitty still had my tiger tail from last weekend’s trip to Nebraska. She offered to make arrangements for me to pick it up, but I decided that I could do without it for one week, in effect thumbing my nose at fate.
I was traveling to see the Tigers take on #17 ranked Oklahoma State. Oddsmakers had slated Missouri almost a two touchdown favorite, largely because the game would take place in Columbia and OSU hadn’t yet played a team worth a sheet of detergent coupons.
Oklahoma State always struck me as sort of an odd team. For starters, they go by a grab bag of names. The Cowboys. The Cowpokes. The ’Pokes. OSU. Okie State. Okie Light. Their campus is located in Stillwater, where polite folks admit there isn’t much to do and less polite folks call it “Stoolwater.” Their primary benefactor is Forbes list hedge fund guy and alternative energy TV spokesmodel T. Boone Pickens. He’s given $265 million to the OSU athletic department, and apparently when you do that, they name the stadium after you. I don’t know the reason they decided to drop the “T” and call it Boone Pickens Stadium, but it doesn’t sound all that removed from dropping Jethro Bodine’s middle initial.
OSU’s team mascot is “Pistol Pete,” a mustachioed cowboy who totes a pair of six-shooters. That’s not so odd, except when you consider that there are two other Pistol Petes, one at the University of Wyoming and the other at New Mexico State. Wouldn’t it be confusing for fans if they ever scheduled each other? Should I cheer for this mascot or throw kettle corn at him? I suppose the issue could be settled with a duel. These bowlegged muppets already have guns, for crissakes. Why not give ’em real ammunition and square them off at 20 paces? Winner gets to keep the big head. I’m not condoning the killing of mascots, of course. Rather, let’s see who can shoot off the other’s giant mascot cowboy hat first. Whoever loses can give a slapstick western comedy double take, along the lines of, “Dang gum it! I just had a hat!” This would be a real crowd pleaser, because everyone loves slapstick western comedy.
On the (tailless, trunk-nude) trip down, I listened to the news. The past week had been the worst in Wall Street history. Coupled with the $700 billion government bank bailout and a presidential race less than a month away, talk radio enlisted a parade of experts who declared that while they had no idea what to do, it must be done quickly. My personal take is that we got into this mess largely due to Americans’ eternal optimism. As a nation we think nothing of borrowing from a banker named Lefty.
Pulling into Columbia around 8:30 Friday night, I made a beeline to Harpo’s and ordered a giant cup of Budweiser. The bar began to fill up with middle-aged men and beautiful young coeds. It was either father-daughter weekend or a bunch of stockbrokers sold General Motors short last week. As I waited for “News” Hughes to show, a guy dressed up as Captain Morgan swashbuckled in (the Captain does not “walk”) and began handing out beads and trinkets. Historically, Harpo’s has discouraged on-premise promotions, but times being what they were, maybe they felt that a guy dressed as a swishy pirate might draw in more patrons. Still, his presence sent another sign, albeit small, that things were slightly off this weekend. What if Oklahoma State had a little Captain in them?
"News" showed up, and we worked our way down Broadway. We grabbed the corner elbow of the bar at Teller’s, ordered drinks, and talked about the election. News’ usual cocktail, a Tequila Sunrise, always strikes me as hilarious. After a few minutes we noticed that the girl seated next to me was passed out cold. Two bartenders and a waitress took turns trying to revive her, their concern not so much for her safety as to avoid a potential lawsuit. Her balance, as though she were Crazy Glue’d to the bar, struck me as all the more impressive given the violent manner in which they jostled her. Finally, she came to and raised her head, a strand of drool extending from her mouth to the bar like Spider-Drunk. Refusing the pint of water offered, she straightened up, shook her head to clear the effects of too many Red Bull vodkas, and walked out under her own power like a trashed superhero. Ah, the recuperative power of youth.
Saturday dawned and I parked myself in front of a Booches’ bloody mary in time for the 11 a.m. OU-Texas kickoff. This was a matchup of #1 vs. #5, and Mizzou would face off against the Longhorns the next weekend. My friend Pops, who I’ve known since the 8th grade, walked in minutes before game time. He would have come up the night before but—and it pains me to say this—he had to take care of his and/or his wife’s three cats. We made our staple order of two Booche burgers and chips. A few orange-clad OSU fans sauntered in, and then a few more. Their team would be well supported tonight.
We caught up with News at Shiloh’s for the second half. Texas answered every Sooner score and finally took control in the 4th quarter. It has always been my conviction that Oklahoma is so accustomed to blowing its opposition out that it struggles in close games. I make this assertion because I can’t stand Oklahoma. Texas, conversely, was making a statement, as sportscasters love to say. I interpreted the statement as, “our uni’s look spiffy, our cheerleaders are masturbation-worthy, our quarterback’s got a bitchin' name, and we’re about to become the #1 team in the country.” Or words to that effect.
It was approaching game time, the Tigers’ second national primetime start in a row. News and I argued about whether I should give him a lift to a tailgate he wanted to attend, a debate that concluded unsatisfactorily for him when I used the ironclad logic that he had his own car. Pre-game tensions were rising.
I had another problem. The Missouri Athletic Department has requested that Mizzou fans wear gold to the games, which, of course, means that many attend in purple or something camouflage. I, conversely, am nothing if not a Mizzou Athletic Department tool. Problem was, with two hours to go, my undefeated gold t-shirt lay helplessly in my motel room. Knowing full well that the expedient thing is rarely the correct one, I bought a cheapie gold replacement at the Tiger Spirit store. “Cheap” being a relevant term, for with the Tigers so highly ranked, face decals were going for around $500 a cheek. I was also knowingly violating my anti-chafing rule of never wearing a t-shirt without first washing it. Increasingly, the events of the last few days—each one just a tad off the norm—began to strike me as some sort of Mizzou Bizarro World. Something was amiss.
Pops and I found our seats. The Cowboys were lined up on the yard markers of Faurot Field, stretching and clapping in unison. They looked calm and collected, but then, so did the Tigers. Chase Daniel wore #25 rather than his normal #10. This was to honor Aaron O’Neal, their teammate who collapsed and died of lymphocytic meningitis during a practice session in 2005. Aaron would have been a senior this year, and the other seniors had voted to rotate wearing his number. Tonight was Daniel’s turn. No one knew which senior would wear the honorary jersey each week, but I had heard the rumor it would be Daniel earlier that day, and it gave me goosebumps.
The Tigers won the coin toss and chose to receive. Jeremy Maclin ran the kickoff out short of the 20, and Mizzou started their first drive of the evening with the knowledge that a win might vault them to number one in the country.
The Tigers, who had scored on every opening possession this year, marched down the field before stalling at the 1-yard line. One OSU offside penalty later, the ball sat little more than a football away from the end zone, third and goal-to-go. Despite the short distance, Mizzou remained in the shotgun, with running back Derrick Washington, not Daniel, taking a snap at the 7. OSU stopped him at the goal line, forcing fourth down. This led to a call that would be debated that night, the next day, and maybe the rest of the year. Rather than trying to punch it in on fourth down, Coach Pinkel opted to kick a field goal. It didn’t seem like that big a deal at the time, but the call did seem to take a little air out of the crowd. Still, with over 9 minutes remaining in the first quarter and the Tigers averaging over 50 points a game, most people in the stands figured the Tigers would be in the end zone quite a bit.
The Cowboys answered on their opening drive, marching down the field to make it 7-3. Most sports pundits looked for the game to be an offensive explosion, but the defenses for both sides stiffened. OSU slowed the MU running game and pressured Daniel from the sides, forcing him to use the middle of the field. At the half, the score stood at only 10-7 Mizzou.
The longer an underdog team hangs around within striking distance, the more they start to believe they can win. In the second half, the Tiger D continued their early season pattern of alternating big stops with giving up huge slabs of real estate. The ’Pokes burned the deep secondary for touchdown strikes of 40 and 31 yards.
More concerning was Chase Daniel. The Heisman frontrunner possessed his normal Lasik surgery accuracy, but despite his deep set-ups, OSU was finding ways to get a rush on him. Because of this, when Daniel wasn't hitting Tiger receivers, he found Cowboys. He threw two interceptions in the second half, and was fortunate to narrowly miss another that would have resulted in a touchdown. Cousin Jimmy texted me from St. Louis: “does Chase have a mustache and a Mohawk?” I had good seats, but not that good. If this was true—my TiVo later confirmed a feuxhawk—perhaps the combination of the new number and hair experimentation represented too much change for one week. Never alter a winning game plan. Wear the honorary jersey against an unranked team. And quit giving your new ’do the Fonzie thumbs up in the mirror while there's game film to study.
On kickoffs and punts, Maclin seemed off, too—more tentative than an about-to-be-dead guy in a M.Knight Shyamalan movie. He had gotten up slowly in the first half and had us wondering if he was a little banged up. Or maybe the OSU team witch doctor had thrust a pin into the hammy of a Jeremy Maclin doll. Both seemed equally plausible.
Even placekicker Jeff Wolfert missed a pair of field goals, and he hadn't missed any in Big XII play. Granted, one of the attempts was from Kingdom City, Missouri. But still, c'mon.
I gazed up into the perfect, clear night. The moon was almost but not quite full. Maybe that meant that the waves of weirdness would merely give us a scare—one that could make the Tigers a tougher team but didn’t cost them the game.
With 4:27 left, Daniel led the team down the field and threw a gorgeous 7-yard touchdown to Danario Alexander, making the score Okie State 28, Missouri 23. The defense held, and the OSU punter shanked one. Mohawk or not, this was Daniel’s moment. The crowd, awkwardly unaccustomed to seeing Mizzou struggle at home, came alive and shook the stadium. The Tigers took possession at their own 35 with 2:40 remaining—an eternity for Mizzou’s hurry-up offense.
Daniel immediately completed a pass for a first down. This drive had all the makings of sparking a celebration that would require copious amounts of Anheuser-Busch products, both spilled and chugged. Two plays later, a Cowboy lineman leveled Chase with what appeared to be a helmet to chin shot. Daniel remained on his back for an extended period as the refs marched off the 15-yard penalty. With just under 2 minutes remaining, Daniel took the snap from the OSU 37-yard line, rolled right, and tried to squeeze a pass into tight coverage. Too tight, it turned out. Interception. Game over. Stunned team. Stunned onlookers.
Filing out of the stadium, fans played Sunday morning quarterback (very little of Saturday night remained, anyway). Why hadn’t Pinkel gone for the touchdown in the first quarter? Should Daniel have been removed from the game for a play or two after taking such a vicious shot? Why had Mizzou all but abandoned the running game in the second half? And had Oklahoma State provided other teams with film evidence of how to slow arguably the best spread offense in the country? The Tigers would drop in the standings, probably out of the top ten. The only silver lining was that next week they’d have the chance to climb right back up when they played Texas.
I returned to my car and found a parking ticket, care of Columbia’s finest. For the record, they come in Tiger colors. I crumbled it, drove away, and threw my 0-1 t-shirt in the cheap plastic motel trash bin. There had not been one signature heebie-jeebie moment, but there were little ones to knock the crowd and the Tigers off their rhythm. Upon arriving home Sunday night I opened an email from Cousin Jimmy:
“BTW, my lucky charm was not activated last night…something always goes wrong when it’s not ready... need to make sure it’s activated next Saturday evening...”So I wasn’t imagining things. One week you’re on top of the college football world and the next you find yourself in the dungeon of Saw, ankle-chained to a Lee Corso. Nobody knows why.