Hellwege finds a lot to appreciate about this year’s Mizzou football team

A few thoughts the morning after…

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Darren Hellwege, sports commentator

While gloating over Mizzou’s win let’s not forget about the fine job in the first half by the Kansas defense. James Franklin helped a lot with a few gifts, but they came in fired up and did a good job of shutting down the MU offense. The Tigers got it going a lot better in the second half to pull away, but as KU’s defense has been consistently the worst in the Big 12, they deserve some recognition for the effort shown in the first half.

~•~

That said, even more credit belongs to the Mizzou defense. It’s the nature of football fans to focus more on the offensive players who score the points, but the Jayhawks had all of one promising drive all day long. They couldn’t run, weren’t given time to pass, and when they did get time to pass the Tiger secondary let nobody get open. It’s been many a year since there’s been a defense this good at Mizzou. Game ball to Dave Steckel. Very few offenses all year got the better of this defense.

~•~

James Franklin runs for a touchdown against Texas Tech.

Anyone doubting the inner strength and toughness of James Franklin can now officially exit stage left. On the first scoring drive of the second half, Franklin completed a perfect pass to Jerrel Jackson for 22 yards, one of the key plays of the most important drive of the day for the Missourians. It wasn’t a snappy pass to an open receiver, it was a timing route, finding a receiver moving who was marked at the time, getting the ball to a window and the receiver meeting it. It requires pinpoint accuracy and perfect timing, but it also requires trust—trust in the receiver (and Jackson’s earned that) but more importantly trust in your arm. There are several QBs in the league (I won’t name names) who couldn’t make that throw. We watched Franklin mature before our very eyes this season and he’ll continue that progress in the years to come. Early this season it looked as if the future might well be in the hands of Corbin Berkstresser or high school phenom and MU commit Maty Mauk. Now, they have serious work to do if they want to take over. This is Franklin’s team.

~•~

I’m pleased that I got the chance to have one last post-game visit with Dominique Hamilton and Terrell Resonno. While you cannot begin to overstate their importance to this team, and both will have a real chance at playing on Sundays, I’m going to miss them in the interview room, too. Both are laid back, honest, tell it like it is guys, and they’ve been a pleasure both to talk to and to watch play over the years. Every year’s graduating class includes a few guys I just hate to see go from my own selfish standpoint and these two anchors of the defensive line are sure among this year’s. I’ve spent more than 25 years working with college students, and while it’s a great pleasure, there’s always the knowing, they don’t last. Next year, a bunch of them will be gone, and a bunch of new guys will show up. But we’ll miss Dom and Terrell.

My conversation with them also showed me an interesting point about the Mizzou-Kansas rivalry. I asked them both a nearly identical question: I know the pregame hype is a big deal, but once the game starts is that just another guy you have to beat across from you, or do you feel differently about them because they’re from KU? It was fascinating to hear very different answers. Hamilton said once the game started, it was no different, just another guy to beat. Resonno’s answer was the polar opposite, saying he saw that blue and red across from him and wanted to destroy that enemy, talking of how he always hated the Jayhawks.

The difference? Hamilton played high school ball in the west Texas town of El Paso and now lives with his dad in New York state (military family, they moved around a lot.) The Resonnos are firmly planted in Jefferson City. While every Tiger wants to beat the Jayhawks, it’s a different deal for someone who’s been born into the rivalry and those who learned when they arrived on campus, “we hate those guys.”

Oddly enough, the guy Resonno called his closest friend plays for the Jayhawks. Fellow Jeff City Jay Richard Johnson, Jr., finished his KU career on Saturday. We’ve talked with Johnson before about how he fell in love with the Kansas campus when he visited and how glad he is he made the choice to go to Lawrence. Like Resonno and Hamilton, Johnson’s one of the good guys and we wish him a lot of luck in the future. He spotted me after the game and made a point of coming over and saying hi. I hope it’s not the last time I see Johnson. Even if he is, and always will be, a Jayhawk.

Johnson and Resonno aren’t the only ones who know when to hate the other side and when to let it go. I imagine some of you experienced different, but this is the fifth of these games I’ve covered in Kansas City and I’ve always seen nothing but good-natured ribbing in the tailgate areas, where KU and MU fans seem to party next to one another fairly peacefully. I’m sure there were a few knuckleheads, but for the most part folks got along well and I’ve always been proud of the Mizzou fans at Arrowhead.

~•~

There’ve been times in recent years where a lot of folks saw the MU secondary as a liability, but especially in the last couple of games they were one of the real unsung heroes of the team. Again on Saturday there were both big plays and just solid consistent excellence from the unit. Kansas put only one real sustained drive together on Saturday, but it was worrisome. A touchdown would have pulled the Hawkers into a seven-point deficit and given KU the one thing Mizzou couldn’t afford to give them—hope. Instead, Kenji Jackson cut their hearts out with an interception with the Tigers backs to the goal line. KU knew that moment that they were destined to not win this final matchup with their archrivals.

~•~

Credit also a terrific game from Tiger linebackers. From the blazing speed of Zavier Gooden to the great play of Andrew Wilson and Luke Lambert, some of the best pure tacklers on the team. This unit’s done things right this season and, like the rest of the club, has improved over the course of the year. Gooden will be a senior next year and should be a serious candidate for all-SEC. Couple his play with the potential return of Will Ebner, Wilson, and some youngsters like Darvin Ruise and Jared Parham and Mizzou has a strong linebacker group for 2012. (Ebner has another year of eligibility that could improve his draft stock, or he could make the run to the NFL now if he wants.)

~•~

One play struck me as symptomatic of the problems in Lawrence. Shortly after an MU touchdown, Kansas put a decent drive together, getting into Mizzou territory. They faced a key play, a fourth and one. Jayhawk coach Turner Gill called a time out, knowing that Mizzou had outplayed his team and they were tied only by some luck, knowing MU’s defense was stingy, knowing they had to take advantage of this opportunity or the game could start slipping away. They had to get everything exactly right. So, they called time out, figured the perfect play, lined up…and the KU tight end jumps offside. Those things happen, but in one of the key moments of the game, this late into the season? It’s not usually a sign of a well-coached team. Two years isn’t enough time to turn a program around, and Gill’s had turmoil in his staff beyond anyone’s control. There are some impressive recruits coming in, but not so many that you’d bet your house, your car, and grandpa’s watch on them winning much in the near future. The KU football program fell fast and hard after the Mark Mangino years, for any number of reasons. But with conference lineups so unpredictable these days, especially in the Big 12, a major university like Kansas just cannot afford to sit back and live with a terrible football program. I like coach Gill a lot, and there are some excellent assistants like Chuck Long on the sideline beside him. But, unfortunately, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see him show up on the unemployment line soon. (Editor’s note: Gill was fired on Sunday.)

~•~

Now, speaking of coaching, consider these numbers: 81, 114, 67; and these: 20, 30, 25. These are stats on penalty yards for the Tigers in their first three games and their last three. Yes, a certain amount of maturing happens through the course of the season, but these numbers say loud and clear Missouri is a well-coached team. And while we already knew this, the incredible discipline they showed in the game with Texas Tech during Gary Pinkel’s suspension confirmed it once again. Saying Missouri is well coached isn’t just about Pinkel. Few schools have a better and more stable bunch of assistant coaches than Missouri does. And the few that leap to mind are much bigger programs, paying a lot more money (think Oklahoma.) The first job Pinkel had when he came to Mizzou was to hire a staff of assistant coaches. His having done that job so very well is a major reason so many other things have gone well for Pinkel here at Ol’ Mizzou. Looking at Dave Yost after the game at Arrowhead, I saw a lot of joy, but I also think I saw a bit of relief. This has been a tough year on this team, from Mike Alden on down to the water boy and the team has built up strength in dealing with adversity. From early losses that frankly should not have been losses, to major losses to injury (not just Henry Josey, remember Elvis Fisher? Will Ebner?) to Pinkel’s drunk driving bust, this team will be all the more emotionally prepared to deal with, and succeed against, what the SEC throws at them. They all need to remember one thing, though. This team looked like it would break its bowl streak of seven consecutive years and they dug deep to make it to bowl eligibility. MU’s put together some pretty puny bowl game performances in recent years. Let’s hope this isn’t one of them. This team’s goal shouldn’t be a bowl appearance—it should be a bowl win.

~•~

On Saturday Gary Pinkel pointed out that it’s unlikely the Big 12 will do MU any favors in bowl placement. There are several options, I have a feeling most likely is the Pinstripe Bowl in Yankee Stadium. It lacks the prestige of bowls MU’s been to in the past, but it will be a thrill for the players to step into one of the greatest stadiums in America. As a Yankee rooter myself, it ain’t the House that Ruth Built, but it’s still Yankee Stadium, with the façade, the monuments, the incredible sports history. Some of the best athletic events ever happened there. Championship fights. Baseball history. And, it’s easy to forget but a great deal of football history as well. It should be a very special trip. This team’s earned it.

 ~•~

I’ll wax philosophic and get all weepy about the final Big 12 football game in the days to come. Count on it, I grew up with the Big 8 and Saturday was a sad one for me. Yeah, there were a lot of rivalries that have lasted more than 100 years. There was a lot of hate. There was a lot of anger and ugly moments. There was no small amount of bitterness over the years. But it was also a partnership, a collective not of football teams or basketball teams but of institutions of higher learning with the same purpose: the development of young people. As I left the stadium from my final Big 12 game, Richard Johnson, Jr. and Turner Gill both shook my hand, and those two good men and the other friends I’ve made in Norman and Ames and Boulder and Austin and Stillwater and Manhattan and Lincoln and…and, yeah, in Lawrence…will be what I miss the most.

Fare you well, fare you well, I love you more than words can tell. Much luck and much love to those eight remaining schools and the people there.

We’re headed south, y’all.

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One response to “Hellwege finds a lot to appreciate about this year’s Mizzou football team

  1. Pingback: KC SportsNation » Mizzou Daily Links: 11/29/11 » KC SportsNation

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