Missouri improved to 3-0 in improbable fashion on Saturday night, scoring a last minute touchdown to beat San Diego State, 27-24. Below are a series of notes and observations from the Faurot Field sidelines:
The note in which OH MY GOD T.J. MOE
Like any other self-respecting fan base, Missouri fans have their recent folk heroes. There were the Chase Coffmans, Martin Ruckers and Chase Daniels of the world. The Jeremy Maclins and Sean Weatherspoons became Columbia icons before plying their craft at the next level. Pig Brown and Tony Temple cemented their place with one epic game each to bookend the 2007 season. On Saturday, T.J. Moe submitted his initial application for inclusion on that list.
Moe entered the game tied for the FBS lead in receptions, and though "gritty" is a modifer most diehard sports fans would rather die than use, it really does fit Moe perfectly. The Missouri public address announcer tried to start his own little Moe meme, leaving a huge pause between "T.J.!" and "Moe!" to afford the Faurot Field crowd time to yell his last name on their own. Like much of Missouri's evening on Saturday, the idea was much, much better than the execution.
But for Moe, one 68-yard catch-and-run saved Missouri from itself. In a way, the play was redemption. Moe ran a six-yard out after a line-of-scrimmage audible by Blaine Gabbert, caught the ball, juked inside a defender, got a block from Jerrell Jackson that took out two Aztecs, and then ran free down the sideline. This came after largely uninspiring performances from the principal figures in the play -- Moe and Jackson, both of whom had a couple of egregious drops, particularly Jackson, who could have helped Mizzou put San Diego State away with a couple of early catches. After the game, Moe gave a huge amount of credit to Jackson, saying that not many receivers in the country would have had the presence of mind to break off a fade route to come back and deliver the key block.
T.J. Moe: The humble hero, for at least a week.
The note 15,000-plus will miss after clicking away from this column early
Not many people were going to see the Missouri game anyway. Pay-Per-View broadcasts of $40 haven't sat particularly well with the portion of Tiger fans that scoff at the whole "free market economics" thing, so the majority of observers for the game came from the 56,050 in attendance at Faurot Field on Saturday evening. And a decent number of those 56,050, as far as they know, they watched Missouri lose Saturday evening, 24-20.
After all, Missouri fans didn't need to see the end of the game, as a solid 10,000-15,000 streamed for the exits after Gabbert threw an interception to Leon McFadden with 1:47 to play and Missouri clutching all three timeouts. And to be fair, they weren't the only ones who thought the game was over. Then something funny happened: a fan base accustomed to cruel twists of fate witnessed the Tigers pull one of their own.
Making matters worse? Rumors going around the press box that the DirectTV pay-per-view feed cut out with 1:30 remaining in the game. At least they didn't miss anything, right?
The note in which a bad habit returns
As mentioned above, Missouri's case of the drops flared up again Saturday after early-season remission. Coming into the season, Missouri's depth chart at receiver was stocked with players with a ton of upside but also prone to the occasional mental lapse. Even in the spring game, Moe had double-digit receptions and 100-plus receiving yards... but only after a series of drops to open the day. Jackson was known as much for his speed and athleticism as his occasional drop or taunting penalty.
Through two games, it looked like Missouri had exorcised those demons. Mizzou's new emphasis on sports psychology in its football program appeared to be paying off, as Gary Pinkel's commitment to finding ways to preach focus seemed to be working for the unproven pass catchers. After catching everything in his zip code against Illinois and McNeese State, Moe had a couple of first half drops. On one play, Jackson streaked wide open up the middle of the field toward the south endzone and was in perfect position to haul in a beautiful Gabbert deep ball before bobbling it and losing it on the way to the turf.
Pinkel says the Missouri offense is a simple game of pitch and catch. When the pitch from Gabbert was good (which wasn't always the case on Saturday), the catch wasn't always there.
The note in which Ronnie Hillman crushes souls
San Diego State freshman running back Ronnie Hillman's 228 rushing yards might be a tad misleading, but this statement is not: Even though his carry-by-carry numbers are somewhat volatile, the kid can ball. All but 67 of his yards came on touchdown runs of 75 and 93 yards, with the touchdowns accounting for more than 71 percent of his output on the day. Save for the touchdown runs, Missouri did a fairly solid job against him, holding him to 3.1 yards per carry on his 21 other carries.
On the first long touchdown run, coming in the waning moments of the first half, Pinkel said the Aztecs made a late personnel change to which Missouri couldn't adjust in time. The Tigers were in a pass coverage call that left them exposed to the run, allowing Hillman to make a lethal cut inside of Kevin Rutland and run away from the Mizzou defense. On the second run, Pinkel said Missouri had the right call, but just failed to wrap up.
As a running back at San Diego State, Hillman faces the inevitable Marshall Faulk comparison. Coming out of high school, he was already labeled "The Reggie Bush of Orange County." If that's true, we look forward to San Diego State's NCAA sanctions. But here's another comparison for you: Emmitt Smith. Like Smith, Hillman has solid vision and his best asset is ability to make one cut and go. His second touchdown, involving Hillman bouncing around in the pile at the line of scrimmage, was reminiscent of one of Smith's more memorable runs against Atlanta in 1992 (warning: awful music at that link). At 5-10, Hillman is a small back with deceptive speed, and one to keep an eye on as the Aztecs go through Mountain West play.
As always, make sure you're reading Rock M Nation for all of your Mizzou Football analysis.