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Balanced offense, tough defense sparks Tigers

Considering the school's storied journalism program, it's understandable that the Missouri football team would have a keen understanding of the power of the printed word.

When a preseason media poll picked the Tigers to finish fifth in the Big 12 North Division, the Missouri players noticed. And went about doing what they could to make sure that life without Brad Smith would be better than most pundits predicted.

"I loved it when we got those kind of write-ups," Missouri DE Brian Smith said. "It was like adding fuel to the fire. And when we got them, our coaches made sure that everybody saw them. It really got us ready for the season."

Life without the record-breaking quarterback was supposed to be more challenging for the Tigers, or at least tougher than what has materialized during a 3-0 start. Victories over Murray State, Mississippi and New Mexico have qualified the Tigers as one of the few positive surprises in the Big 12 so far this season.

"A lot of people might have doubted us with life after Brad and I understand that," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. "Everybody had great respect for what he did for us. But I always said we had a lot of good people still here and that you'd notice how good they were when he left.

"Maybe our players made it kind of motivational, because they all thought we could be a good football team."

Missouri's 17 returning starters have pulled together and continued a strong finish from last season that culminated with a comeback victory in the Independence Bowl over South Carolina.

The Tigers have shown strong offensive balance and a dominating defense during its strong start. A victory over Ohio on Saturday would provide only the second 4-0 start for the Tigers in the last 25 years.

"I knew all along the kind of talent we have," Smith said. "It was kind of frustrating that people didn't acknowledge it. Our team knew what we were capable of doing. And all summer we worked and got into shape so we could accomplish some things."

Sophomore QB Chase Daniel has filled in capably for Brad Smith, averaging 254 yards passing while leading the conference's most productive offense.

Daniel has helped the Tigers become one of the nation's most-balanced offenses in the country. The Tigers, along with Louisville and Oregon, are the only teams nationally to rank in the top 25 in the four major team statistical offensive categories of rushing, passing, total offense and scoring.

"We're doing a lot of good things right," Daniel said. "It's been fun to be part of this, so far."

Daniel played in every game last season to get his feet wet in the offense. It's helped him make a seamless transition once he assumed the starting role.

"Getting the playing time last year helped me a lot, especially with my confidence," Daniel said. "I was coming in expecting to redshirt and not play when I got here. When I got the call, it was a shock, but it all worked out."

Some have compared the 6-foot, 225-pound Daniel to former Purdue and current New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees as a player who makes the most of his physical tools in the spread offense.

And while Daniel will never streak through a defense like Brad Smith did, he has shown surprising nimbleness at times. He was Missouri's leading rusher with 89 yards against Mississippi.

"They are two different players in our offense," Pinkel said. "Brad was an exceptional runner and a good thrower. Chase is an exceptional thrower and a good runner. They are different in that way. We are asking Chase is to be the distributor of the ball. It allows us to use personnel and lean on what he does best."

The Tigers had a tendency to lead on Brad Smith in the past, waiting for him to let his mercurial skills take over in a game. With Daniel, the rest of the offense has become more involved.

The offensive balance has provided an opportunity for tailback Tony Temple to fulfill the promise when he arrived as one of the nation's top recruits. Temple rushed for a career-high 168 yards against New Mexico, his second 100-yard effort this season.

"It's kind of pick your poison with this offense," Daniel said. "We can go out and run for 300 yards or we could pass for 300. We can do whatever the defense gives us."

The change in quarterbacks has allowed Pinkel, a former offensive coordinator at Washington under Don James, to tweak his offense. The Tigers are throwing more vertical passing routes by taking advantage of Daniel's stronger arm.

It's not the only change that those around Pinkel have noticed this season. After being characterized as stern and dour earlier in his coaching career, some have noticed he's smiling more this season. He surprised a Missouri beat writer at practice earlier this season with a birthday cake and even joined in singing "Happy Birthday."

But he's not turning soft, and neither is his defense. Nine returning starters have helped them rank no lower than 14th nationally in any of the major categories of rushing defense, pass efficiency defense, total defense and points allowed and pass defense. No other team nationally ranks in the top 15 in all of those categories.

That balance has caught Pinkel's attention early in the season, along with the Tigers' tenacity. Maybe that's why he's seems happier.

"I really, really like this team," Pinkel said after the Tigers thrashed Mississippi. "They might be a little different. They might be getting it."

Previous Missouri teams had an uncanny knack of stubbing their toes against lightly regarded nonconference foes. Pinkel's first two Missouri teams in 2001 and 2002 lost to Bowling Green. And losses to Troy two years ago and New Mexico last season snuffed out momentum before the conference race even started.

That attitude was tested in Missouri's win over New Mexico last week. The Tigers struggled offensively at times and were leading only 13-10 heading into the fourth quarter. But this team responded with back-to-back drives of 11 and 12 plays that consumed more than 11 minutes combined and scored a pair of touchdowns to ice the victory.

"In the past, I don't know if we would have been able to win a game like that," Brian Smith said. "But our coaches have preached about being dominant and dominant people don't worry about the score. I wasn't really worried."

That confidence might be tested in tough early back-to-back road games against Texas Tech and Texas A&M in early October. A split in those two games would legitimately boost them into North Division title contention with a huge Nov. 4 game at Nebraska looming.

How the Tigers react to positive publicity after being vilified before the season could determine whether they will be legitimate contenders for their first conference title since 1969.

"The way I consider it, we haven't done anything yet," Daniel said. "We're 3-0, but we still have a long, long way to go."

Tim Griffin covers the Big 12 for the San Antonio Express-News.