Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — The Missouri defense has carried most of the team’s weight this football season, limiting opponents to 14.7 points per game — fifth in the country.
The Missouri offense repaid a bit of the favor Saturday.
The Tigers mounted long drive after long drive, holding the ball for nearly 20 minutes more than BYU, in the offense’s best performance of the season. The Tigers won 20-16 to end a four-game losing stretch.
Missouri set season longs with a second-quarter drive of 18 plays and a third-quarter drive of 8:09.
“It helps our defense,” offensive lineman Connor McGovern said. “We have a great defense, but (on) defense you’re more reacting, and that takes more energy than knowing what’s going on. So it helps protect them, and I think we put them in bad situations one or two times (Saturday) when other games we were doing it a lot more than that.”
Though some believe time of possession to be a meaningless statistic, sustaining drives is key for a Missouri offense without much quick-strike ability. Missouri had four drives last 10 or more plays in the BYU win.
McGovern said getting the little things right allowed drives that might have ended in three plays earlier this season to go for 15.
“We’ve kind of had that all year where one guy was kind of making a mistake and costing us a play,” he said. “Finally this game, we kind of were all clicking on the same cylinders and all running together and making plays on the same play.”
Much of the improvement for the Missouri offense, which still ranks fifth-to-last nationally in yards per game, has been rooted in the run game. A week after running for 215 yards against Mississippi State, the Tigers picked up 190 on the ground Saturday. Senior Russell Hansbrough ran for 117 yards against the Cougars, becoming the first Tiger to cross the century mark on the ground this season.
Hansbrough sprained his right ankle on his first run of the season, a 20-yarder, and wasn’t fully healthy until the week before the Mississippi State game, head coach Gary Pinkel said.
“The rest of (the season) he was trying, but it just wasn’t clicking,” Pinkel said. “Now, he’s full-bore ahead. … It’s really disappointing that we didn’t have him like that from Game 1, because he’s an impact player.”
Hansbrough was coming off a 1,000-yard season in 2014, and was a crucial component for an offense devoid of experience at receiver. With him healthy and senior Tyler Hunt earning more playing time behind sophomore Ish Witter, the Tigers finally have something resembling a multi-tiered running attack.
“I think that helps them all,” offensive coordinator Josh Henson said, “when they can kind of spread the reps out amongst themselves and they’re fresh going in there, running the football.”
Also using his legs more is quarterback Drew Lock. The Tigers rolled him out frequently Saturday, often moving the pocket with him, and BYU failed to record a sack despite having averaged 3.3 a game.
Lock took note.
“We talked about it like, ‘Hey, that is a goose egg in the sack column,’” he said. “And that is not something we’ve seen this year.”
Rolling Lock out allowed Missouri to simplify some of the plays for the true freshman.
“It’s just much less complex,” Pinkel said. “He’s a very smart guy, and we did some (plays with multiple options), too, but I think we had some other things in that were a little bit easier for him to see.”
It must have worked, because Lock completed 19-of-28 passes for a 67.9 completion percentage, his second-best of the year. His 244 yards were a season high, and his 145.7 passer rating was his best in a game he started.
The Lee’s Summit native also threw his first passing touchdown since Oct. 3.
“To finally have that happen, especially in Kansas City, in Arrowhead, that was pretty cool to say the least,” he said. “It took a monkey off my back a little bit. Hopefully I can get more than one this week.”
The offensive line had perhaps its strongest game so far, even though starting tackle Nate Crawford hurt his left leg.
“We needed to control the ball and go win the game,” Henson said. “That was something I felt like we were able to do against a pretty good team. We were able to control the football against a pretty good defense and keep our defense off the field, play the clock control game a little bit.”
Missouri hosts Tennessee at 6:15 p.m. Saturday for Senior Night.