Back in Top 25, Missouri wants to stay there

Sep 11, 2009 - 6:01 AM By R.B. FALLSTROM AP Sports Writer

COLUMBIA, Mo.(AP) -- An impressive opener launched Missouri back into the Top 25 and coach Gary Pinkel wants his young team to stay there.

All week, Pinkel has been guarding against a letdown against a school that knows how to handle stepping up against the Big 12.

Bowling Green is an 19 1/2-point underdog against the 25th-ranked Tigers in the home opener Saturday night. But the Falcons would have no problem getting Pinkel's attention even if they hadn't rallied from a 14-point deficit to put away Troy 31-14 in their opener last week.

Pinkel is 5-7 against Bowling Green, including losses his first two seasons at Missouri in 2001 and '02. He's 5-7 overall against the Mid-American Conference school, where he coached wide receivers in the mid-1970s and then faced on a yearly basis during a decade as Toledo head coach.

Beyond that history lesson, Missouri is a young team still learning its way while trying to follow up consecutive seasons with double-digit wins for the first time in school history.

Thus, Pinkel promised grueling practices early during the game week.

"It's wise with a relatively inexperienced football team that's had a lot of success that I make them aware," Pinkel said. "We're not good enough to be overconfident and it's wise for me to be aware of all those hazards."

The Tigers were lightly regarded headed into the season after losing stars like Chase Daniel and Jeremy Maclin. The 37-9 dismantling of Illinois behind sophomore quarterback Blaine Gabbert's nearly flawless debut as a starter quickly convinced poll voters Missouri deserved another look.

Gabbert made his first start in nearly two years, throwing for 319 yards and three touchdowns and running for a fourth score.

Pinkel needn't have worried that Gabbert would be satisfied. Far from it.

"I really should have had zero incompletions," Gabbert said. "If I make eight better throws, we complete eight more passes. Just rushed it a little bit in the face of pressure."

Gabbert produced scores on seven of nine drives against Illinois, living up to the high-flying standards set by Daniel. Senior receiver Danario Alexander, dogged by injuries in previous seasons, had a career-best 10 receptions for 132 yards with six catches coming on third or fourth down.

Pinkel was impressed with Gabbert's ability to shake off rough treatment by Illinois.

"In this business, you're going to take some hits," Pinkel said. "And he'll take a lot more. How he threw the ball and then jumped right back up after getting hit, you're special if you can do that."

Missouri's often-maligned defense also just as impressive under new coordinator Dave Steckel, stifling prolific Illinois quarterback Juice Williams behind the play of linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and nice games from linemen Jaron Baston and Jacquies Smith.

"I think they've simplified the scheme, and you really see some of the speed come out," said Bowling Green's first-year coach, Dave Clawson. "Weatherspoon is one of the very best linebackers in the country."

Bowling Green's defense is also coming off a strong effort, allowing 210 yards of total offense in the first half against Troy but only 94 yards and four first downs thereafter.

The Falcons put up some big numbers on offense, too. Quarterback Tyler Sheehan is set for his 27th consecutive start after throwing for 339 yards and two touchdowns, and wide receiver Freddie Barnes had a school-record 15 catches for 157 yards and two scores.

Now comes a chance to again bedevil a name school. Bowling Green has 11 wins over BCS division schools since 2001, but Missouri has won 20 of its last 22 at home.

"These guys are used to running around with the Oklahomas and Texases of the world and they can play," Clawson said. "You can't just say they're a good team. That's a great program."

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