By Ryan Atkinson
Globe Sports Writer
If the Missouri Southern Lions are going to snap their most-despised streak — and you know exactly what streak I’m talking about — it has to be now.
I’m not saying anything the Lions don’t know already; nothing MSSU coach Daryl Daye hasn’t already drilled into his players’ heads in the hours after they took care of Truman State on Saturday, officially flipping the calendar to Pittsburg State week.
But it bears repeating.
If the Lions want to beat their rivals from just across the state line for the first time since 1993 — or as longtime Morning Sun sports and news editor Bill McMillen would say “since Moby Dick was a minner,” — this is the time to pounce.
Pitt State’s collective head is spinning.
Just three short weeks ago, the Gorillas — undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the nation — were 10 minutes away from beating their biggest rival, Northwest Missouri, at Arrowhead Stadium.
But the bottom fell out and Pitt State lost 31-21.
Two unbearable disasters followed, lopsided home losses to Missouri Western and Lindenwood, broken up only by a road win over a weak Truman State team.
At times in the home losses, it appeared the Gorillas were emotionless, something rarely seen on the west sidelines at Carnie Smith Stadium.
“Emotionally, on our sideline, it was a roller coaster,” senior wide receiver Andrew Castaneda said after Saturday’s loss to Lindenwod. “We really need to fix that and stay positive and stay focused for the rest of this season and for next year and years to come.”
And that is exactly the reason why now may be Missouri Southern’s best chance to knock off the Gorillas.
It’s not a talent issue. It’s not a coaching issue.
It’s an issue of heart.
One could argue that Pitt State — its fans for sure and perhaps some of its players — have become spoiled.
Despite a pair of rough seasons in 2009 and 2010, the Gorillas are held to ridiculously high standards.
While MSSU was elated with clinching a winning season on Saturday, the Gorillas were crushed last month when they dropped just their second loss of the season.
While many around Joplin beamed about MSSU’s crowd of 5,317 on Saturday, Pittsburg State’s announced attendance of 7,984 felt puny and was the smallest at CSS since Nov. 26 of last year.
As big and electric as the crowds can get when things are going well — last year’s national semifinal game under the lights is a prime example — things can take a drastic turn when the team struggles.
Many fans left at halftime on Saturday, when the Gorillas were trailing just 24-12. By the end of the third quarter, the main parking lot outside the stadium had started to clear.
Judging by the quotes from some of the players and head coach Tim Beck — who said his team was “very uninspired” in the first half Saturday — some of that mentality may have spread from the stands to some of the players on the field.
I’m not writing this because I’m pulling for an upset.
Having covered the Gorillas regularly over the last three seasons and over parts of the last decade, I’ve grown to respect the Pitt players and coaches.
Beck and his staff do things the right way, accept victory and defeat with class and never shy away from tough questions.
I’m simply pointing out the obvious.
The Lions will be ready to play Saturday. This is the biggest game of the year for them.
The sweat from Saturday’s win over Truman hadn’t yet dried and the Lions were already openly talking smack on their Kansan neighbors.
And there is a very good chance the Gorillas can get back on track this week, wipe away the frustrations from the last three weeks, use their recent struggles as fuel, drive to Joplin and end the regular season with a convincing win over the Lions.
But there is also the very real possibility that the Gorillas again have to battle a lack of inspiration and an emotional roller coaster.
And if that happens, the Lions have to take advantage.
This could be their big chance.
Ryan Atkinson covers Pittsburg State for the Globe. Follow him on twitter at @ryandatkinson