Frustration set in sometime late in the third quarter for Missouri’s defense during a 59-42 loss against Auburn in the Southeastern Conference championship game Dec. 7 at the Georgia Dome.
“Probably around the third (quarter) after the game started to get out of hand, the guys started losing their poise and getting mad on the sideline, stuff like that,” senior cornerback E.J. Gaines said. “There weren’t the right looks on people’s faces, and when you walk by them, you could kind of tell.”
Auburn was in the midst of rolling up 545 yards rushing because Missouri struggled to maintain its gap responsibilities, Gaines said. The result was ghastly on the stat sheet and scoreboard.
It also probably cost the Tigers a shot at the BCS championship.
“We just lost focus a little bit,” junior defensive end Kony Ealy said. “Bigger stage and new for everybody, we just lost a little focus. And when you lose that focus in a big game like that. It kind of magnifies. I’m not going to say it was a fluke, but we didn’t come out there with our ‘A’ game. They did, and they went on.”
Before it was finished, Auburn managed to crush the psyche of a defense that entered the game allowing only 119.1 rushing yards — 14th in the nation at the time — and hadn’t been gashed on the ground for more than 184 yards in any other game this season.
“We didn’t play our best game, and I think we got a little flustered,” Tigers coach Gary Pinkel said, “because all the great success we’d had and then all of a sudden then you start making a mistake here and a mistake there. It’s just not very good, but they’ve got great pride and we’ve had a great defensive team this year.”
No. 9 Missouri, 11-2, and that prideful defense will get a chance to script a better finish to the season Jan. 3 against No. 13 Oklahoma State, 10-2, in the Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium.
Just don’t expect any lingering effects from the Auburn beating.
“That’s long done,” said senior defensive end Michael Sam, who became the second unanimous All-American in Missouri history on Wednesday. “I’m focused on going into the Cotton Bowl with my last game and going out with a winner.”
Gaines agreed, saying he put the SEC championship game out of his mind when stepped on the field Monday for the first practice since that loss. Missouri is focused on Oklahoma State now and won’t carry a chip on its shoulder into that game.
“When you do something like that, I feel like it hurts the team more than it helps it, especially with how long there is between each game,” Gaines said. “You can’t really focus on the last game.”
Besides, Oklahoma State boasts a potent offense in its own right.
The Cowboys average 39.8 points, 14th in the nation, and churn out 440.5 yards of total offense per game. Coach Mike Gundy’s squad also ranks 14th nationally in scoring defense (20.0), so once again there won’t be much room for error on the part of Missouri’s defense.
“I think a lot of eyes were on the defensive line last game, and I believe it will be the same going on to Oklahoma State,” Sam said.
“It’s going to be a challenge to show that we’re one of the best defensive lines in the country. We’re going to have to step up our game.”
Pinkel likes what the Tigers have shown in the first few practices and expects his defense will play more like it did the first 12 games against Oklahoma State.
“You have a little pride in who you are, what you’re about, so there’s a little bit of that going on,” Pinkel said. “We’ve played really good defense against some great teams. We’ll bounce back, and hopefully we’ll play really well.”