Nov. 17, 2004
SportsLine.com wire reports

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- One miserable month has wiped away all the promise Missouri started with this season.

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The Tigers (4-5) have lost four straight and the star running back and the father of the star quarterback have questioned the play calling.

Coach Gary Pinkel's mid-major background, his perceived stubbornness and his apparent decision to transform Brad Smith into a dropback passer have all come into question.

With two games left, it's hard to believe this team began the season with the grand expectations of a Heisman Trophy contender and a No. 17 preseason ranking.

"It's been a tough month," Pinkel said.

Pinkel appeared to have accomplished the big turnaround last season, leading the Tigers to a 7-5 record and an appearance in the Independence Bowl -- their first postseason appearance in five years and only the third in 20 years. Near the end of last season he signed a contract extension through 2008.

Even earlier this year, it looked like Missouri, as the school advertising slogan goes, was "on the move."

Missouri began the year 4-1, the only blemish a 10-point loss at lightly regarded Troy in Week 2. That was the first in a series of collapses threatening the season.

The Tigers scored two quick touchdowns at Troy, then nothing. They ran out to a 17-0 lead against Oklahoma State before losing by three at home, and in their last game two weeks ago they were poised to end an 11-game losing streak against Kansas State with a 21-0 second-quarter lead that also evaporated in a 35-24 loss.

"If we were playing two halves, I don't think we'd be having a problem," offensive tackle Scott Paffrath said. "That's what's so disappointing about the way we've played. It's not like we've gotten beat, we've let these games go."

Behind the scenes, things were going just as poorly. Running back Damien Nash was suspended for a loss at Nebraska after remarks about play-calling were overheard by a reporter. Smith's dad, Phillip Smith, telephoned a Kansas City radio show to complain some more about philosophy and memorably said that Pinkel had the personality of a "dill pickle."

Potentially more harmful, Pinkel snapped recently at members of a booster club, people who might be able to influence his future. He's consistently been curt with the media.

This week he's seemed more accepting of the firestorm surrounding his program, although he went on the offensive in some aspects. He attempted some spin when he said Saturday's game against border rival Kansas was perhaps more important than a bowl trip and improbably, a possible Big 12 title game appearance, that still hang in the balance despite a 2-4 conference record.

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To make it to the championship game, Missouri needs to win out and have Colorado win at Nebraska in its regular-season finale on Nov. 26.

"You have to have a short memory in football and a lot of sports," safety Jason Simpson said. "You can't dwell on the past, you have to just move forward and push it all behind you."

As for shackling the nimble Smith, Pinkel believes its more myth than fact.

Pinkel notes that Smith is third in the Big 12 in total offense. He expressed some disappointment in Smith's inconsistencies, but also said perhaps fans have expected too much from the player who was supposed to lead Missouri to a Big 12 championship game.

"I think what everybody expects Brad to do is have these huge, huge games," Pinkel said. "I think the expectation level was so high, I don't know if he'd have a chance to meet what the expectation level was.

"On the other hand, he's done a lot of good things, a lot of positive things."

Pinkel also said opponents should be credited with recognizing Smith's talent and taking steps to neutralize it.

Missouri's up-and-down offense has wasted a breakthrough year by a once-porous defense that is No. 1 in the Big 12 and 10th in the nation in yards allowed.

"This year it's like we're kind of the big brother and we've got to help them out," Simpson said.

In his time of need, Pinkel has sought out some of his mentors. But he knows ultimately the Tigers' demise is on his head.

"I've had my tough times before and I think you draw from those things," he said. "I made a couple of phone calls but it's not real complex.

"You try to be positive, you try to correct problems, you try to make sure communication stays at a very, very high level."