Tempe, Ariz. In his last remarks at a postgame news conference following Missouri’s 27-24 football loss to Iowa in the Insight Bowl on Tuesday night, junior quarterback Blaine Gabbert glanced ahead at MU’s prospects next season.
“We are going to have one hell of a football team, I can tell you that right now,” he said. “This team is a bunch of competitors. We will fight our tails off to the very, very end.
“Having this bitter taste in our mouth will make us work that much harder. And people should watch out for us next year, because we got a lot of guys coming back, (and) we’re hungry.”
Indeed, with 18 seniors-to-be in its offensive and defensive depth charts for the Iowa game and only seven current seniors in the depth moving on, 14th-ranked MU (10-3) could be at the peak of a cycle as it was in 2007.
There is an asterisk, though: It depends on the return of Gabbert, whose words of inclusiveness weren’t, in fact, conclusive.
He is among at least four Mizzou underclassmen being evaluated by the NFL draft advisory board, whose projection will be a major factor in whether he returns.
If the board determines he’s a first-round pick, he almost certainly will leave.
The deadline for declaring for the draft is Jan. 15, but the decision could be made in the next few days.
In the loss to Iowa, Gabbert set Mizzou bowl records with 41 completions in 57 attempts for 434 yards as he propelled the Tigers to a school bowl-record 32 first downs. He also threw two interceptions, the first of which was in the hands of Jerrell Jackson in the end zone before Jackson lost the grip and batted it up in the air for an Iowa pickoff.
The second was his fourth-quarter lob intended for Wes Kemp after a play broke down. Running to his left, Gabbert thought Kemp still was working to get open as Kemp apparently thought Gabbert was going to run.
“When you are out there in space, you know, you are really not sure” what the other is doing, Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel said. The play “is not designed once you are out in space.”
Considering Gabbert and Kemp have worked out together for years, chances were they’d read each other right.
Instead, Iowa’s Micah Hyde plucked the ball and started his marathon at the MU sideline by veering the width of the field before zooming up the Iowa sideline for a 72-yard touchdown that proved to be the difference.
“If he had a chance to throw it over again,” Pinkel said, “he probably wouldn’t.”
The moment blemished Gabbert’s otherwise sparkling night but hardly eclipsed it in the eyes of his teammates.
Defensive end Aldon Smith, also contemplating leaving early, said Gabbert’s game was “awesome” and the best he’d seen him play.
“Everybody has things to work on, but right now he’s an NFL quarterback, and I think he’ll do fine in the NFL,” said Jackson, who, lest he came off as knowing more than he did, added, “I really don’t know nothing. I’m just answering questions.”
As for those who might know something, Gabbert is considered among the top few quarterback prospects for the 2011 draft if he chooses that route. But even being in that select group doesn’t immediately clarify whether he’d be first-round material or not.
If he stays, Mizzou figures to be ranked in the top 10 to start next season and, at least as Jackson put it, “hopefully have that undefeated year we’ve been looking for.”
With or without Gabbert, that may be a reach.
But with him, MU at least has reason to believe instead of just hoping a youngster can grow up instantly.