Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — After an abysmal three games to open its Southeastern Conference schedule, Missouri’s offense needed to make improvements against a struggling Vanderbilt team Saturday.
The offense didn’t work out all of its kinks, but it took a step in the right direction, putting up 300 yards for the first time in SEC play and enough points to top Vanderbilt, 24-14.
“This is a big stepping stone,” center Evan Boehm said, “but at the same time, we’ve still got a lot of things to correct.”
First, the good. Quarterback Maty Mauk ended a three-game touchdown drought with two touchdown passes to Bud Sasser. Mauk also completed more than 45 percent of his passes for the first time in conference play. Altogether, the offense gained 385 yards, its most since Missouri’s Sept. 20 loss to Indiana.
“We’re not fully back to how we were, but we’re starting to execute,” Mauk said.
Missouri relied heavily on the run in the win. The Tigers ran the ball 46 times, the most since their Week 2 win against Toledo. Mauk, Marcus Murphy and Russell Hansbrough each ran for more than 65 yards, and the team combined for 258 yards on the ground.
“That’s big for us,” Mauk said. “That’s going to open up the passing game, because now they’re going to put guys in the box and give (our receivers) the ability to get out there and get open.”
Mauk had continued success with the designed quarterback run, scrambling for as long as 36 yards.
“I have some ability to run the football, and I’m going to incorporate that,” he said. “It’s going to help open up other guys.”
Now, the bad. Missouri had 14 penalties for 100 yards, both season worsts.
“That’s Missouri beating Missouri,” coach Gary Pinkel said. “So that’s something we’ll tend to (today).”
What’s more, the offense’s improvement wasn’t quite as impressive when stacked up against what Vanderbilt’s other opponents have done this year.
Vanderbilt entered the game allowing an average of 34 points and 416 yards per game. Missouri failed to reach either of those totals. Opponents were completing 63.6 percent of their passes against the Commodores, and Mauk completed just 48 percent of his.
The Missouri defense, on the other hand, continued its successful run in SEC play. Vanderbilt gained just 240 total yards and succeeded on only 4-of-11 third-down conversions.
The win was Missouri’s sixth, making the Tigers bowl eligible eight weeks into the season.
“That’s pretty good around here,” Pinkel said. “The first time it happened, they threw parties all over the state of Missouri. So Missouri fans (now), ‘Bowl eligible, but who cares?’ That’s good. If that’s the way they feel, that’s fine. Honestly, we didn’t talk about it at all. … We all know the number, but we also want to have a number higher than that.”
The Tigers never trailed Saturday, which was Missouri’s Homecoming. Andrew Baggett began the scoring with a 37-yard field goal to cap Missouri’s opening drive.
Baggett later missed a 42-yarder wide right.
Hansbrough scored the first touchdown of the day on fourth-and-2 from Vanderbilt’s 10 yard line, bouncing outside off the right tackle to score his seventh touchdown of the year.
“We’re a pretty confident team on fourth downs,” offensive lineman Mitch Morse said. “We like the plays we can execute (on) fourth-and-1, third-and-1.”
Vanderbilt didn’t go quietly into the half, however, scoring on a 9-yard pass from first-time starter Johnny McCrary to Nathan Marcus with eight seconds left in the half.
Missouri responded with a Braylon Webb interception on the first drive of the third quarter, his third in two games. The takeaway now begins a new streak at two games for Missouri, which recently held a nation-leading 47-game consecutive takeaway streak.
The Tigers and Commodores exchanged punts before Missouri took advantage of a six-play, 56-yard drive, and Mauk did something he hadn’t in his last 100 passes: threw a touchdown. Sasser, who had five catches for 74 yards on the day, was the recepient.
“What you ask for Bud Sasser is, ‘We’re going to lean on you to make some plays,” Pinkel said. “And that’s what he did.”
Vanderbilt cut the lead back to three in the fourth quarter when McCrary threw a 29-yard touchdown to C.J. Duncan to end a six-play, 76-yard drive. But Sasser’s number was called again on the ensuing drive. With 2:05 left in the game, Missouri dealt the finishing blow through the air. Mauk aired a pass to Sasser in the back corner of the end zone and Sasser made a difficult catch, getting a foot down to put Missouri up 24-14.
For an offense trying to regain its footing, putting the game out of reach without having to rely on the defense didn’t hurt.
“I think it’s really positive,” Pinkel said. “There’s no question you get a confidence level when the games on the line, and you’ve got to make a play.”