It is an exciting time on campus for the University of Missouri as many alumni descend on Columbia to participate in centennial homecoming festivities this weekend.
Not so exciting is the 2-3 start that their Tiger football team has had, especially after expectations were relatively high for this season. Gary Pinkel's squad is searching for an identity on offense, struggling with special team problems that they haven't had in a number of years and still trying to figure out how they can match up with the elite quarterbacks in the Big 12.
Things get easier for the Tigers this week after failing in two straight road tests against undefeated Big 12 teams. The Tigers draw the 3-2 Iowa State Cyclones for homecoming this year and come into the game as about two touchdown favorites, even with their record below .500 for the first time since 2004.
A weaker opponent means opportunity for Mizzou to work out whatever problems have plagued them thus far and start playing like the talented team most fans know they are. What do the Tigers have to do to avoid one of the biggest letdowns in recent memory (considering the fanfare surrounding this weekend)? Here are my five keys to Saturday's game:
1. Fast start
Far too often have the Tigers needed incredible fourth quarter comebacks led by sophomore quarterback James Franklin to even give themselves a chance to win. Intensity will be high as Mizzou expects to sellout Memorial Stadium (only the third full sellout in the Pinkel era) with a crowd that figures to be pretty rowdy. If the Tigers can harness this energy that they will receive from the crowd, a much-needed fast start could be in order. Tiger fans want nothing more than an easy win and will do all they can to help the team.
2. Feed Josey
In his weekly press conference, head coach Gary Pinkel said that the coaching staff is trying to get sophomore tailback Henry Josey 15 carries and about 20 total touches per game. From the viewpoint "we want to keep our best player healthy," this makes sense. The Chiefs have done it with Jamaal Charles in the past and Pinkel is looking out for his player who probably can't handle a large workload. Still, at some point you have to start thinking about giving this guy more responsibility on offense because he has proven himself to be the most dynamic player on offense, by far. Good things happen when Josey touches the ball, so that needs to happen as often as possible.
3. Cover corners actually cover
Cornerbacks EJ Gaines and Kip Edwards have to deliver on some of the great talent that the coaching staff raved about during spring practices. Edwards, who has been dealing with some of the effects of a nagging hamstring injury, is an experienced player who should be able to cover the best receiver Iowa State has to throw at him (Darius Reynolds) Shaky play from safety Matt White hasn't helped these corners do their jobs, but the time for making excuses is over. Start playing like the cover corners that most know you can be.
4. Ressel bounce-back
Coming into the year as an All-American candidate at kicker, Grant Ressel has struggled with basically every kick he has attempted this year. He's missed some crucial ones so far, including one that would have won the game as time expired against Arizona State, two against Oklahoma that would have made the end of the game a lot different and two more against Kansas State that would have done the same. Ressel has loads of talent and was spectacular last season, but you have to wonder if the cast on his arm that was the result of a bicycle accident is causing some mechanical and mental problems. If he can gain some confidence in front of a home crowd by making some easy field goals this year, it could help him get on the right track for the rest of the season.
5. Pick up the pressure
Yeah, the Tigers have 11 sacks in five games this season, but surveying the team before the year, the defensive line figured to be one of the better ones in the nation and one that could give quarterbacks in the talented Big 12 a lot of headaches. Steele Jantz is a dual threat quarterback, so the defensive ends and outside linebackers have to do a good job containing him in the pocket, but ramping up the pressure on an inexperienced quarterback should have desired results for Mizzou.
Basically what these five keys say are that the Tigers need to pick up their game on all levels. Offense, defense and special teams have all underperformed thus far, but certainly have the talent to rebound. It is not too late for Mizzou to finish the year strong, picking up solid wins against teams like Texas A&M, Texas, Baylor or Oklahoma State along the way.
That turnaround has to start sometime. What better time than Mizzou's 100th homecoming?