Big Red storm coming
Tiger coach enters uncharted territory.


By DAVE MATTER of the Tribuneís staff

Story ran on Saturday, September 29 2001

It took some prodding from reporters to get Gary Pinkel to admit todayís Big 12 opener against No. 4 Nebraska is a big deal. Trying to downplay that todayís game holds more weight than any other on the Missouri schedule, Pinkel stressed that his Tigers have prepared for their first conference game like they would any other opponent.

Mark Schiefelbein photo
The Missouri Tigers will face a Big Red Storm - the No. 4 Nebraska Cornhuskers - in today's Big 12 opener at Faurot Field. The Tigers have not beaten Nebraska in 23 years.
"Obviously the nature of a game, having a fourth ranked team coming into Faurot Field, thereís certainly added emotion, incentive Ö the fan base," he said. "All that adds to the excitement for our players, but we donít itemize preparation. We donít say weíre going to prepare harder for this team. Never. Never."

While many of his players have faced the Cornhuskers three or four times, Pinkel enters uncharted territory today.

While compiling a record of 73-37-3 during 10 seasons at Toledo, only twice did Pinkel face a nationally ranked team - Washington in 1991 and Ohio State in í98. The Rockets lost both games.

To compare, Larry Smith faced 29 ranked teams in seven seasons and four alone last year.

Mark Schiefelbein photo
Justin Gage, with ball, had his breakout game in last year's 42-24 loss to NU.
"You play a fop-four team, personally, shoot yeah, it means a lot," he said. "Part of that is because people donít give you a chance to win the game. Then your prideís involved."

Meanwhile, Nebraska coach Frank Solich has history on his side - not to mention the No. 4 team in the nation. Nebraska owns 22 straight wins over Missouri and hasnít lost in Columbia since 1973. But still, he and his Cornhuskers enter todayís game at Memorial Stadium with some questions waiting to be answered.

● How will the unexpected break in the schedule affect both teams?

While Nebraska (4-0) spent its bye week practicing for Rice, which NU trounced 48-3 on Sept. 20, Missouri hasnít played since beating Southwest Texas on Sept. 8. The Tigers (1-1) have had almost three weeks to prepare solely for the Cornhuskers.

"People keep asking if Iím afraid weíre going to be rusty," Pinkel said. "Weíve had about 8,000 plays during that time, so how can we be rusty?"

● What can the Cornhuskers expect from Pinkel, who is coaching in his first Big 12 game?

Under Pinkel, Missouri has played only two games - to NUís four - for Solichís staff to study. The Tigers feature a new one-back offensive scheme and a retooled 4-4 defensive front. Plus, junior quarterback Kirk Farmer may or may not be available to play with a torn knee ligament. Farmer has practiced all week with the No. 1 offense, but had not yet been cleared to play in todayís game.

● How will Solichís squad play away from Lincoln, Neb., where it has opened the season 4-0?

The Cornhuskers havenít played on an opponentís home field since last Nov. 11. They lost their last two true road games - at Oklahoma and at Kansas State last year. Each of NUís last five losses came away from Lincoln.

"Itís not all that tough to play a football game when youíve got 70,000 to 80,000 people in the stands screaming for you and you just feel all that support on your back," Solich said. "Itís a little tougher when youíre away from home and that support is not necessarily there."

Despite all those uncertainties, Solich still coaches Nebraska - a team that has outscored its four opponents 138-34 and will play the Tigers while ranked in the top 10 for the 20th straight season.

Junior outside safety Tauras Ferguson, will be one of six MU starters on defense playing against Nebraska for the first time.

"Itís exciting," he said. "This is why we all play this game, to play in games against teams like this. The most important thing is itís a conference game. Weíre trying to have fun with it while getting in all the work."

Some MU players pointed to North Carolinaís stunner over Florida State last week as evidence a Missouri win today is possible. But they need only to look back to last season for proof. Missouri ran up 492 yards of offense in Lincoln and kept the score close until Farmer was knocked out with a broken collarbone.

The Tigers trailed 28-21 and were driving toward a game-tying score in the third quarter when NU linebacker Jamie Burrow returned a Zack Abron fumble 28 yards for a touchdown.

Five plays later on MUís next possession, a promising drive turned disastrous when Farmer snapped his collarbone falling after a 33-yard scramble.

A year later, Farmer said much can be taken from last yearís effort in Lincoln.

"We can take away the things that we did and were successful at," he said. "Weíve got the same guys. It is a different system, so itís not the same plays. But I just remember how we were playing at such a high emotional level. We really felt like we were in the game. We kept up with them. We had some mistakes here and there, but as a whole, we played pretty well."

For three quarters, Farmer put together his best performance as a Tiger, throwing for 214 yards, running for 83 and catching a 35-yard pass from receiver Justin Gage.

Gage broke out with his best game in the 42-24 loss, catching five passes for 125 yards, including a 48-yard TD pass from Farmer.

But last year was last year, and the Tigers know it.

"Nebraska is a great team and Iíll give them all their props," center A.J. Ricker said. "Theyíve always been a top-10 team, but I donít think we should be scared. Weíre not going out there to lose. Like Coach Pinkel said, we need to get winning into our head. Itís not we might win - weíre going to win.

"We have to have that mindset and give them hell."


Reach Dave Matter at (573) 815-1788 or dmatter@tribmail.com.