COLUMBIA, Mo. • This was another one of those rare football Saturday nights when the score wasn’t quite as memorable as the magnitude of the moment.
So what exactly was the magnitude of moment like at Mizzou in its grandiose Southeastern Conference coming-out party?
Light-headed and memorable. Gut-twisting and humbling. Saturday night at Faurot Field was the sort of gawdawful moment that epitomized the wildest dreams and most agonizing nightmares of Tiger lovers everywhere.
Good, but not good enough. Oh so close, but a gaping chasm away. A delirious beginning followed by a stabbing, cruel and bitter conclusion. By the end of No. 7 Georgia’s 41-20 victory, the loudest voices you could hear inside suddenly tame Faurot Field were from the modest scarlet-red pocket of Bulldogs fans who had taken over the far southwestern corner of the end zone with a rather snarky, but perfectly appropriate chant of "Old man football" to the absolute delight of all the Dawgs in the house.
Ouch. That hurt.
For most of the night, Georgia players and their fans had been fairly silent — quite nervous actually — as the Tigers controlled the game and held the lead deep into the third quarter of their nationally televised, prime-time debut in the mighty SEC. All night long, this endless sea of gold-clad Mizzou fans had been making the loudest noises in the sold-out house, chanting and cheering and reveling in the dizzy mood of what was starting to look like a wildly successful conference debut.
In the world where Mizzou football fans dwell, the ambitions are not as wide-eyed and lofty as they are in places like Athens, Baton Rouge and Gainesville. They have always been slightly more modest and a great deal more reasonable. All they ever wanted was a chance. A chance to be taken seriously. A chance to stand on equal ground with college football’s best and brightest. A chance to show the rest of the college football world that they can play big boy football with the best of them.
And for most of the night, Mizzou was accomplishing all of that and so much more.
Yet by game’s end, it turns out that life up on the narrow ledge where highly ranked SEC teams live wasn’t much different for Mizzou from its previous journeys onto a similar cliff with the best and brightest in the Big 12.
After leading 20-17 late in the third quarter, Mizzou was outscored 24-0 to close out the game, and Saturday’s long-awaited showdown turned out to be just another big tease, another frustrating near miss, another night of too many odd mishaps and maddening failures. It was a three-hour infomercial on just how far the Tigers have come in a decade-plus under Gary Pinkel, but just how much farther they still have to go before they can be considered the sort of legitimate and consistent program that seizes on big-game opportunities like this with regularity.
"You can’t make the kind of mistakes we made and survive against a team like that," said Pinkel. "You just can’t do that."
Killer turnovers and odd risk-taking turned this into a fourth-quarter disaster. The game was over in the blink of an eye because a curious call by Pinkel for a fake punt on fourth and 11 on the Mizzou 35 not only didn’t work and pretty much hand-delivered three points to the Dawgs, but made no sense considering the time and place in the game. Pinkel took responsibility for the call but offered no insight into why he called the play, which pretty much set the ball rolling down the hill the wrong way.
After the failed trick play led to a field goal to expand Georgia’s lead to 27-20 with more than 11 minutes remaining, there was still plenty of time for Mizzou to win, particularly considering how well the defense had played most of the game. However, all that happened after that were more hair-pulling mistakes that turned this from a dead-even battle against a team with genuine national championship aspirations into a what-the-heck-just-happened blur of a knockout.
A drive-killing false start forced Mizzou to punt on its next possession, then quarterback James Franklin committed two mistakes — a mind-boggling interception right into the hands of a Georgia defender and a fumble with his back to the goal line — and that was the ballgame. They can’t give away games like this, because there are a lot more teams just as good as Georgia and even better. There is heavy lifting to be done every week in this league.
Still, by the end of the night, I was convinced more than ever that Pinkel’s Tigers are fast enough, strong enough, talented enough to be among the best in the SEC. There’s a reason more than a dozen NFL scouts were in the press box, and it wasn’t only because they wanted to see Georgia. Clearly, the MU players are not swimming in waters too deep for their athletic abilities. This Mizzou defense is as fast and furious as any SEC defense you’ll see this year. Their offense has as many weapons as most of the better schools in the conference.
And ultimately when you consider the entire night, the completely wonderful environment, the incredible atmosphere that was building in this football-crazed college town all day long, you have to at least take a moment to acknowledge what was going on here.
Win, lose or draw, Mizzou football has turned a corner.
"It’s absolutely amazing," said former MU offensive tackle and current radio commentator Howard Richards. "Look at this scene. Feel all this energy in the stadium. Look at how competitive this football team is playing."
I can still remember in the early days of the Pinkel era just how angry and frustrated he would get with all the fans and reporters who were giving him "atta boys" when the Tigers lost back-to-back close games to Oklahoma and Nebraska in the 2002 season. The square-jawed young coach had arrived from Toledo only a year earlier, and he seethed slowly every time some alum came up to him after the game just to let him know how nice it is that the Tigers could lose to the big boys with dignity instead of getting beaten into submission by 30-point deficits.
He has beaten his share of the big boys since then, but not enough to put his program where he truly wants it to be.
He kept saying over and over again until somebody, anybody would listen, that he didn’t come to Mizzou to lose with class.
Pinkel has done so much since arriving here, but by his own standards, nights like this aren’t what he’s here for.
You have to win games like this. You just have to.