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Having dispatched winless Colorado 28--13 last Saturday, Missouri is 5--0 for the first time since 1981. How is this happening? It helps when you beat the teams you're supposed to beat. Last year Mizzou was upset at home by New Mexico. In 2004 Troy stunned the Tigers in Alabama.
"Maybe in the past we really haven't been as good in these types of games--in trap games," says sophomore quarterback Chase Daniel, whose 23 completions in 35 attempts against the Buffs included four touchdown passes. "But this is a new Missouri team."
Daniel replaced the dazzling Brad Smith, who became the only player in Division I-A history to pass for 8,000 yards and run for 4,000 and who is now getting touches on gadget plays for the New York Jets. For all his gifts, Smith was never a comfortable fit in the spread option installed last season by coach Gary Pinkel. Daniel, on the other hand, has been running the spread since his days at Southlake Carroll High, a powerhouse in suburban Dallas, and running it well. While he has proved sufficiently mobile to keep defenses honest-- Daniel rushed for 89 yards in a 34--7 beatdown of Ole Miss--he is also deadly accurate, having completed 63.8% of his attempts, and loves to spread the ball around.
Wideout William Franklin had been his favorite target going into the Colorado game, but Daniel did most of his damage on Saturday by throwing to a pair of stud tight ends with NFL pedigrees. Martin Rucker, a 6'5" junior whose brother Michael is a Carolina Panthers defensive lineman, pulled in six passes for 66 yards and a touchdown. Chase Coffman, a 6'6" sophomore who's the son of former NFL tight end Paul, caught four passes for 31 yards and two scores.
These Tigers have roared the loudest on the other side of the ball. Going into the Colorado game, Missouri led the nation in total defense. (The Tigers slipped to second, behind LSU, after allowing the Buffs 373 yards.) Highlighting a long list of marauders flying to the ball has been undersized and unheralded end Brian Smith, a 6'4", 230-pound pass-rushing force who has seven sacks this season, including four against New Mexico. He is bookended by fellow senior Xzavie Jackson. Their motto: Meet me at the quarterback.
"We're far from perfect," says Pinkel, who, though only 29--30 in his first five seasons at Missouri, took the Tigers to two bowl games. "But I guess the good news is we can get better."
Word out of Columbia is that Pinkel, never known for his gregariousness, has loosened up. One theory holds that he was befuddled trying to figure out how best to use Brad Smith. Now Pinkel is more relaxed, cracking jokes, presenting birthday cakes to beat reporters. That looseness pervades a team that is looking more and more like a serious threat to take the Big 12 North.
The ACC's last undefeated team resides not in Tallahassee, Coral Gables or Blacksburg but rather in Winston-Salem, where Brian Piccolo once ran wild and where Wake Forest ran off its fifth straight victory last Saturday with a 34--14 cakewalk over Liberty. It bears noting that Wake got a better game from the Fighting Falwells, a I-AA squad, than it did from Ole Miss the week before. Playing in Oxford, the Demon Deacons held the home team to 26 rushing yards in a 27--3 win marked by the surreal sound of visiting spectators outshouting Rebels fans in their own house. "We were in the locker room," recalls free safety Josh Gattis, "and all we heard was ' Wake Forest' over the top of the Ole Miss fans."
The din created by Demon Deacons supporters is all the more impressive considering the size of this proud liberal-arts institution. With 4,037 students, Wake has the third-smallest undergraduate enrollment in Division I-A. It is no small irony, then, that coach Jim Grobe has been winning on the strength of his team's remarkable depth. Almost everybody on the team redshirts as a freshman. In fact, all but three of the 44 players on Wake's two-deep at the start of this season had redshirted.
Cut the Deacons some slack for beating lowly Duke only 14--13. The truth is, this team has run the table with one hand tied behind its back--or, in the case of junior quarterback Ben Mauk, in a plaster cast. Mauk broke his right arm and dislocated his shoulder in the opener against Syracuse, and he's out for the season. Preseason All-ACC tailback Micah Andrews, who tore his left ACL against UConn, will probably miss the rest of the year as well. Left tackle Arby Jones, who had started 22 straight games, tore his left MCL against UConn and is out until mid- to late October.