Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA — Missouri’s most recent home game resulted in the Tigers’ fourth straight win, but head coach Gary Pinkel said he didn’t want to get used to the final score of 20-10.
The 10 part was OK, Pinkel said after the game, but he’d “like to get the other one up a little bit higher.”
Saturday, the Tigers had a win more typical of the program’s recent history in a 34-27 defeat of fellow Big 12 transfer Texas A&M. It was Missouri’s first Southeastern Conference game with more than 400 yards of total offense this season, as the Tigers racked up season highs of 587 yards and 32 first downs.
“We’ve adjusted a little bit,” Pinkel said Monday. “A little bit more ball control, and we’ve been protecting the football and playing good defense. Those things you have to do. … Again, it’s consistency. Can we have this performance on offense, and can we finish playing at a pretty high level? We’re going to play some pretty good defensive teams, so that’s our challenge to do that, and hopefully we can.”
The Missouri offense has emphasized the run game since a defeat of Florida in which the Tigers managed just 119 yards of total offense. Up to that point, Missouri had only had one game with more than 40 rushing attempts. Since then, Missouri has averaged nearly 47 rushing attempts a game.
That new approach came to a head Saturday, when the Tigers went for 335 yards on the ground, led by Russell Hansbrough’s 199 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries.
Hansbrough, who ran for touchdowns of 45 and 49 yards, had more rushing yards than any Missouri tailback in a conference game since 1999. He was named the SEC Offensive Player of the Week on Monday.
“I was really impressed,” quarterback Maty Mauk said, “but at the same time you expect that from Russell. He’s a playmaker. He’s got an engine that’s never going to stop.”
Pinkel said running backs coach Brian Jones has tried to make Hansbrough more of a vertical runner this season.
“He’s got great quickness and change of direction,” Pinkel said of Hansbrough, “and he would always try to outrun the defense and cut back, and sometimes be successful. … But coach Jones is trying to get him to go downhill more and then find creases and use his speed to cut, and I think he gets that now.”
Though Missouri’s ground attack had a breakout day, its passing game wasn’t too shabby, especially given the Tigers’ struggles through the air in conference play.
Mauk’s 252 yards through the air were his third-most of the season, and Saturday was Missouri’s first SEC game with more than 175 yards through the air.
One big key was the return of senior receiver Darius White from multiple groin injuries. White, a Texas native, caught a season-high six passes for 55 yards his most since Missouri’s Week Two win at Toledo. White, who made a key one-handed catch on a third down pass, also caught his first touchdown catch since the Toledo game.
“Having Darius back seemed to open up our whole offense, didn’t it?” Pinkel said.
The rippling effect of White’s return seemed to benefit fellow senior Jimmie Hunt, whose 85 yards were more than the combined totals of his last four games.
“It was big having Darius out there just to spread the field out,” Mauk said. “Because now you’re not just going to be, ‘Hey, let’s worry about Bud (Sasser) and Jimmie on the one side.’ Now you’ve got Darius back out there. He’s just a guy that I know, and to have him back out there is a big help for our offense, and we’re going to continue to get better from there.”
Sasser had received increased attention from defense after becoming the clear go-to target amongst a depleted receiving core. He enjoyed seeing his classmates get in on the action Saturday.
“It’s very nice, just to see those guys out there making big plays. It’s just fun,” Sasser said. “The people you came in with and the people you’ve been working your tails off with for four or five years. That’s really big when you see them making one-handed plays and scoring at their home state and things like that and Jimmie coming back and having a big game, that’s just big. I’m proud of those guys.”
And the common factor in the ground and air attacks’ breakout games? The offensive line. The Missouri offense did not allow a sack against a team that was tied with an SEC-best 32 of them coming into the game.
The line effectively pulled blockers throughout the game and finished blocks better than it had at times this season.
“I think the guys are getting more confidence,” offensive line coach A.J. Ricker said. “And after a game like that, you can see the confidence after the game with the guys. And they know they weren’t perfect. Shoot, nobody is, but it’s good to see the finishing and stuff we really instill in practice is paying off.”
For a team that has had to rely on its defense to win games in conference play, the Missouri offense enjoyed taking more control Saturday.
“Just to go out there and know that our defense had faith in us and just to see it in their face and their body demeanor as well,” Sasser said. “‘OK, we gave up six or seven points, but our offense is coming with it.’ You just kind of felt that throughout the sideline, and I think that really helped our team, being able to go out there and do that.”
Aarion Penton returned to Missouri’s depth chart as the starting cornerback Monday. Penton was arrested Nov. 7 on suspicion of misdemeanor marijuana possession and was suspended from team activities through the Tigers’ win Saturday.
Monday, Pinkel said Penton had returned to the program. When asked what Penton had to do in order to return from his suspension, Pinkel said he does not comment on discipline issues.
Backup tailback Morgan Steward has not played a snap this year and will miss the remainder of the season, and Pinkel provided some more details regarding his status Monday. Steward recently hip surgery, and the scope returned positive results, Pinkel said.
“We expect to get him back,” Pinkel said. “We don’t know when he was going to get back in terms of working, but (we should) get him back for next year.”
The coach believed Steward had chipped a bone and surgery was necessary to “clean up debris” in the hip. Steward was expected to be able to return through rehabiliation this year, but the rehab proved ineffective. Pinkel said Missouri will appeal for a medical redshirt for Steward’s missed 2013-14 season from the NCAA, but he was not sure whether it would be successful.
Steward’s absence necessitated the use of senior Marcus Murphy as a full-time backup tailback this season. Pinkel had hoped to be able to use Murphy as a slot receiver if Steward returned from his injury.