HIS TEAM had just lit up the scoreboard with more than 50 points, beaten a ranked opponent in a season opener for the first time in 28 years, and delighted the giddy faithful who had made the sojourn from Columbia, Mo., to St. Louis and packed the Edward Jones Dome. But when a beaming Gary Pinkel entered the Missouri locker room in the moments after his club's 52--42 win over No. 20 Illinois last Saturday night, the perpetually upbeat, Harley-riding coach soon realized that he was about the only guy in the room smiling. "That was a little upsetting; you should enjoy a win," Pinkel said later. "But am I kind of glad the players were disappointed? Yeah. Am I glad that I had to get them cranked up a bit to get them to smile? Yeah."
That the Tigers—last year's biggest surprise with a 12--2 record and a No. 4 finish in the AP poll—were anything less than elated after a win over a Top 25 team that played in a BCS bowl last January shows how expectations have dramatically changed at a school that hasn't won a conference title since 1969. "We were sloppy, and the game was closer than it should have been," senior defensive end Stryker Sulak said. "We have big goals this season, and to reach them we have to play better."
Yes, Missouri saw a 25-point second-half lead dwindle to 10 in the fourth quarter. Yes, Illinois junior quarterback Juice Williams, who'd never topped 230 passing yards in a game, shamed the Tigers' secondary by throwing for 451 yards and five touchdowns as he suddenly channeled Donovan McNabb. ( Williams worked out with the Philadelphia Eagles star and fellow Chicagoan over the summer.) However, the Tigers still showed that they are a bona fide national championship contender.
Quarterback Chase Daniel, at the controls of the team's high-octane spread offense, threw for 323 yards and three touchdowns. Show-stopping sophomore wideout Jeremy Maclin, who last season set an NCAA record for all-purpose yards by a freshman, officially launched his Heisman campaign in the second quarter with a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. And senior tight end Chase Coffman, a 6'6", 255-pound All-America candidate who had nine catches for 120 yards, wowed the crowd in the third quarter when he leaped over an Illinois defensive back like an Olympic hurdler, en route to a 21-yard gain.
The night's biggest revelation, however, was sophomore running back Derrick Washington, who dazzled in his first career start with 130 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries, a performance that suddenly has Columbia buzzing that he may be Missouri's most gifted tailback since James Wilder. The Tigers' offense last year was potent—it ranked fifth in the country in total yards and was the nation's only unit to score at least 30 points in all its regular-season games—but there were signs on Saturday that it can be even more explosive with Washington in the backfield. In front of a crowd of 66,441 that included his parents, the 5'11", 225-pound Washington made his mark on his fourth touch of the game as he powered in for a seven-yard touchdown to cap the Tigers' opening drive. Then in the second quarter he demonstrated his open-field speed by sprinting 40 yards for another score to give Missouri a 24--13 lead.
A native of Peculiar, Mo., Washington has the words RARE BREED tattooed on his right biceps, and he says, "I'm not familiar with the term traditional running back." This off-season he hit the weight room and bulked up 25 pounds—"I'm not scared to pound it inside anymore," he says—but what has impressed his coaches the most are his hands. Growing up four hours from the Edward Jones Dome, Washington modeled his game after former St. Louis Rams great Marshall Faulk and current Rams star Steven Jackson, versatile backs with the ability to hurt teams in a variety of ways. Though he made just one catch against Illinois, Washington frequently lined up as a wideout; Missouri coaches believe their running back will emerge as one of Daniel's favorite targets this season. (Last year's lead back, Tony Temple, caught just seven balls all season.) "You just got a preview of what Derrick can do," says Daniel. "There's a lot we can do with him in this offense—we won't reach our true potential until we figure out how to use him best."
That, in turn, will only raise the profile of the Tigers, who were playing in their fourth straight nationally televised game on Saturday. In Daniel and Maclin, the Tigers have two players who are widely regarded as Heisman front-runners. ( Missouri's sports information department is launching Daniel's candidacy this week by sending out 2,500 ViewMasters, loaded with images of Daniel, to members of the media.) If the Tigers can find a way to win at Nebraska (on Oct. 4) for the first time since 1978, they should enter their Oct. 18 game at Texas with a 6--0 record and their eyes on their first-ever BCS berth. "We had a great year last season," says Daniel, "but we think we're better this year. And we're a lot better than what we showed [against Illinois]."
For the rest of the Big 12—and the rest of the country—that's a scary thought.