KANSAS CITY, Mo. – After his live television interview – after he hugged his position coach, waved to his parents and saluted the fans chanting 'Heeeiiisss-Maaannn, Heeeiiisss-Maaannn,' – Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel trotted off the field at Arrowhead Stadium and grinned.
"Seriously," Daniel said as he neared the tunnel, "if we're not the No. 1 team in the country tomorrow, something's wrong."
Anyone who witnessed Saturday's 36-28 victory over No. 2 Kansas would have a tough time arguing with Daniel's logic. During a time when so many other top teams are losing momentum, Missouri is clearly gaining it.
Along with earning the school its first-ever Big 12 North title, the win over previously unbeaten Kansas could catapult No. 4 Missouri to the top of the BCS standings.
Even if they're ranked second behind West Virginia, the Tigers realize that a Big 12 championship victory over Oklahoma this week is all that separates them from a spot in the Jan. 7 national title game in New Orleans.
"That's great, that's good," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. "I don't know what you want me to say. I'm not going to jump up and do a back-flip.
"We're excited about the opportunity, but before we can worry about that we've got to win this next one, and that's going to be a task."
Indeed, Oklahoma handed Missouri its only loss of the season – 41-31 on Oct. 13 in Norman. The Tigers actually led 24-23 in the fourth quarter before making a series of mistakes that enabled the Sooners to rally for the win.
More than a month later, this is a different Missouri team.
"We let one slip away the last time we played Oklahoma," Missouri receiver Jeremy Maclin said. "This time I think we'll be ready."
The Tigers better be. While defeating Oklahoma could propel Missouri into the national championship game, losing to the Sooners might knock MU out of the BCS picture all together. Kansas, meanwhile, ends its regular season with one loss and still stands a chance of earning a BCS berth. As he left his postgame press conference Saturday, Jayhawks coach Mark Mangino made sure to exchange pleasantries with a pair of Fiesta Bowl representatives on hand for the game.
MISSOURI 36, KANSAS 28
Offensive player of the game
Daniel is the obvious choice here, so we'll mix things up and go with running back Tony Temple. The Kansas City native played the most inspired game of his career in front of his hometown fans. Temple rushed for 98 yards to help keep the Kansas defense guessing.
Defensive player of the game
Even though it came in a losing effort, the performance of Kansas safety Justin Thornton was hard to ignore. Thornton notched a career-high 16 tackles and also broke up a pair of passes.
Play of the Game
William Moore's interception of a Todd Reesing pass early in the second quarter proved pivotal. The Jayhawks had driven to the Missouri 26-yard line and were threatening to score when Moore came up with the pick on the 2-yard line. The Tigers' offense capitalized with a 98-yard scoring drive that made it 14-0 at intermission.
What this means for Kansas
The Jayhawks are out of the national title picture, but don't be surprised if Kansas still ends up in a BCS bowl (possibly the Fiesta). Also, Mark Mangino should get strong consideration for National Coach of the Year honors.
What this means for Missouri
This week's Big 12 Championship showdown against Oklahoma is huge for the Tigers. Win, and Missouri will play for the national title on Jan. 7 in New Orleans. Lose, and the Tigers may fall out of the BCS picture entirely and end up in the Cotton Bowl.
But back to Missouri: The Tigers are more than capable of beating Oklahoma – mainly because Daniel seems to be improving with each game. Saturday he embarrassed and exposed a Kansas defense that entered the game ranked eighth in the country.
Daniel completed 40 of his 49 pass attempts, and it's not as if they always came easy. Missouri committed 14 penalties for 141 yards, which meant a lot of second-and-12s and third-and-20s for the offense. Daniel was never rattled.
Pinned on his own 2-yard line, Daniel engineered a 13-play, 98-yard drive in the second quarter that gave Missouri a 14-0 lead at intermission. Kansas rallied in the second half and shaved the Tigers' advantage to 31-21, but Daniel countered with another drive that led to a field goal that gave Missouri a 34-21 cushion with 3:31 remaining.
With Daniel running the offense, Missouri controlled the ball for more than 18 minutes in the second half. Kansas tried to come back but, because of the way Daniel kept the chains moving, it didn't have enough time.
Pinkel said it was satisfying to see Daniel play so well on such a big stage.
"You saw it – America saw it," Pinkel said. "They saw this guy in adverse weather conditions that had to make plays in the fourth quarter. We get a 15-yard penalty and somehow he still (gets the first down).
"America got to see today just how special this kid is."
It wasn't just Daniel.
Missouri running back Tony Temple kept Kansas off-balance by rushing for 98 yards. Maclin had 109 return yards while receiver Denario Alexander collected 117 yards through the air.
"We've got all the right pieces (to win a national championship)," Maclin said. "Now we've just got to put the puzzle together. We're almost finished putting that puzzle together."
Entering the game the one missing component was Missouri's defense, which had been mediocre at best all season. Saturday, though, the Tigers gave Kansas fits in almost every area.
Kansas made three first-half trips inside the red zone and failed to score. Once because of an interception and twice because of missed field goals.
Running back Brandon McAnderson gained just 41 yards and quarterback Todd Reesing threw two first-half interceptions that led to Missouri touchdowns. Before Saturday Reesing hadn't been picked off since Oct. 6.
"I didn't feel out of sync," Reesing said. "But every throw you make isn't going to be perfect."
Also a Heisman candidate, Reesing helped Kansas bounce back by orchestrating three touchdown drives in the fourth quarter, the last one culminating in a short strike to Marcus Henry that made it 34-28 with 2:03 remaining. Heck, if kicker Scott Webb hadn't missed a pair of early field goals, the score would've been tied.
Kansas attempted to regain possession with an on-side kick, but Missouri fielded the ball cleanly. The Tigers went three and out, and Kansas got the ball back on its 11-yard line with 17 seconds remaining. But any chance of a zany finish ended when defensive tackle Lorenzo Williams sacked Reesing in his own end zone for a safety on the first play.
"We had a pretty good lead in that game," Pinkel said, "but we were still fighting to win with a few seconds left. That says a lot about what kind of a team Kansas has."
More than half of the 80,537 fans who packed Arrowhead Stadium went bananas as the final horn sounded in Missouri's win. Hours later, in the parking lot and up and down Interstate 70, horns were honking in celebration of Saturday's victory – and in anticipation of what still might come.
"For a while we were up-and-down and up-and-down," Williams said. "Now everything is up, up, up."