Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — Last year, when one mentioned “The Streak” in reference to the Missouri football team, it was a positive. The Tigers extended their nation-leading stretch of games with a takeaway to 47 last season before failing to record one in a loss to Indiana.
This year, “The Streak” once again featured the number 47, but it had a much uglier connotation. Missouri’s offense went 47 straight drives without a touchdown, beginning in the fourth quarter of the Tigers’ Oct. 3 win against South Carolina.
On Thursday, more than a month later, the streak came to an end when Russell Hansbrough ran for a 14-yard touchdown in the second quarter of Missouri’s 31-13 loss to Mississippi State.
The end-zone drought was no secret to the Missouri offense.
“We all knew about that,” tailback Tyler Hunt said. “I mean, that’s one thing that a lot of people have been telling us. We’ve definitely been on ourselves hard, because we needed the score, we needed to make some touchdowns.”
Fellow tailback Ish Witter tried to ignore it.
“We were aware of it, but you can’t look at it like that,” he said. “You’ve just got to keep working.”
Still, Witter was happy to see the Missouri have success on the ground Thursday. The Tigers ran for a season-high 215 yards, with Hunt going for 85, Witter rushing for 81 and Hansbrough tallying 62.
Hansbrough’s touchdown came on a third-and-4 from the Mississippi 14.
“It was a weight lifted definitely off your shoulders,” Hunt said. “It felt good, definitely, seeing Russ get in there, diving. It was like ‘All right, sweet. We finally got one, now let’s get this thing rolling.’”
Missouri ran for 68 yards on the drive, their second-longest of the day.
“It felt good to be able to move the ball on the ground, without a doubt,” quarterback Drew Lock said, “and we had some serious momentum going into halftime after that drive.”
Unfortunately for the Tigers, they appeared to leave the momentum in the locker room.
Lock threw an interception on the Tigers’ first offensive play of the third quarter, floating the ball into triple coverage.
“I tried to make something out of nothing,” Lock said. “At the last second, I knew I should have thrown it out of bounds, and I tried to get it there. It was like my mind was battling my arm. So it was just me being an ignorant little 18-year-old.”
Missouri then punted on its remaining two drives of the third quarter. The Tigers took the ball into Mississippi State territory on their first drive of the fourth quarter, helped in part by three straight passes to freshman receiver Emanuel Hall for a combined 34 yards. The Tigers’ offense stalled, however, and Missouri turned it over on downs.
Missouri’s best chance for a second-half touchdown came on its final drive, with the game already well out of hand. The Tigers began the drive inside their own 1-yard line, and Hunt busted the first play for a 72-yard run, giving Missouri the ball at the Bulldogs’ 27-yard line. Hunt appeared to be stonewalled by the Mississippi State line, but he spun to the outside and willed his way downfield, breaking a string of tackles along the way.
“The first thought, obviously, is to make sure you get 2 yards to get it away from the goal line,” Hunt said. “I knew how our O-line was going to block, and how they were pinching, how there might be a crease here and there. Then if I make somebody miss, (I) might be able to have a chance to go, because everybody’s going to pinch in. That outside was wide open, so I just took it.”
Hunt averaged 14.2 yards per carry in the game and also had a 35-yard catch-and-run. He has Missouri’s two longest plays of the year, the longest being a 78-yard touchdown pass from Lock against Southeast Missouri State.
Despite his knack for breaking big plays this season, Hunt hasn’t seen much playing time, a fact he has more than once bemoaned.
“I feel that way, but we all have a role to take part of,” he said. “It’s just once I get out there and have my opportunity, I’m going to take advantage of it every time. Whether it’s one play or 100 plays, I’m just going to take advantage of every time I get on the field and make something happen for my team.”
Despite the strides in the run game, however, Missouri found just 136 yards through the air and was unable to score in the second half.
If nothing else, the Tigers can build on their second-quarter touchdown, which came amidst a downpour.
“We just kind of did what we wanted,” Lock said of the drive, “(even though) it was pouring buckets on us, which was a pretty crazy experience.”
Now, at 4-5 overall and 1-5 in the Southeastern Conference, the Tigers have some more weathering to do.
“There’s a storm cloud above us right now,” Lock said. “But storms don’t last forever.”
One might think Kentrell Brothers was playing with a chip on his shoulder Thursday night, if the senior linebacker hadn’t already been playing with one all season.
Brothers, who leads the nation with 117 tackles, was left off the Butkus Award’s list of 10 semifinalists Monday. The award is given to the nation’s top linebacker.
Brothers, who expressed frustration during fall camp at the lack of respect he was given, was demure in his response to the perceived snub. When the list was announced, he simply tweeted “Sometimes that’s how the cookie crumbles.”
“I mean, the linebackers they have on there are pretty good,” Brothers said Thursday. “I mean, it’s kind of a big deal, but it’s really not a big deal. As long as I can come out here and play with my teammates, that’s all I can ask for.”
Instead, Missouri linebacker Michael Scherer lashed out, tweeting, “Whoever didn’t vote for Kentrell to be a Butkus semi finalist must have been trying out that new Sarkisian diet,” referring to former USC coach Steve Sarkisian, who was fired after suspicions of substance abuse.
Brothers had 14 tackles and a blocked punt Thursday. Even before Missouri’s mid-week game, he had a 12-tackle lead on Rutgers’ Steve Longa and Stanford’s Blake Martinez, the nation’s second-leader tacklers. Though Brothers has at least a 31-tackle lead on every player in the SEC, five other linebackers from the conference made the list.
Scherer backed Brothers again after Thursday’s game.
“I don’t know what the process is for (the Butkus Award),” he said. “I don’t know who does it. But Kentrell is hands-down the best linebacker in the country, and I think he showed everyone that tonight. There’s no question. We’ve watched a lot of guys on film. A lot of guys that are on that list we’ve watched on film, and there’s no comparison.
“But Kentrell doesn’t need all that to play well and to get where he wants to go. I think there’s a lot of NFL teams that are going to be dying to have him come May. … He doesn’t really care that much about it. That’s why I said something, because he would never say something, but he is hands-down … the best linebacker in the country. It’s not even close.”
The semifinalists announced Monday were Martinez, Kendall Beckwith (LSU), Su’a Cravens (USC), Kyler Fackrell (Utah State), Leonard Floyd (Georgia), Deion Jones (LSU), Raekwon McMillan (Ohio State), Antonion Morrison (Florida), Reggie Ragland (Alabama) and Jaylon Smith (Notre Dame).