By Christian Clark, KBIA Sports
Ground game trending upward: A Missouri offense that looked listless through four games of Southeastern Conference play finally showed signs of life in its weekend win over Vanderbilt.
While was it not a dominant performance, the Tigers at least showed the ability to sustain long scoring drives en-route to racking up 385 yards of total offense — by far their healthiest output through four games of conference play.
Most of the damage was done on the ground. Missouri (6-2, 3-1) rushed 46 times for 244 yards. Although the dominance came against a Commodores’ rush defense which ranks 11th in the SEC, it could be a sign of things to come.
The revamped offensive line, which brought two new starters into the fold following the Sept. 20 home loss to Indiana, finally appears to be gelling. Running back Marcus Murphy, who rushed 16 times for 93 yards, said he saw bigger holes to hit on Saturday than in previous weeks.
“I think the O-line did a good job of making the right blocks and creating lines for us as running backs, and Maty (Mauk) to run and get a lot of yards on the ground,” Murphy said.
Mauk had 58-yards on the ground and running back Russell Hansbrough had 19 carries for 87-yards and a score.
The Missouri coaching staff told Hansbrough to run between the tackles, as opposed to bouncing the play outside, in recent weeks. Coach Gary Pinkel said the 5-foot-9, 190-pound junior did a better job of that Saturday.
“He ran much better inside and he’s finding out he’s powerful,” Pinkel said. “He’s a load. He’s got great explosiveness.”
Vanderbilt was certainly no juggernaut in terms of stopping the run, but neither are any of Missouri’s upcoming opponents. Kentucky, Texas A&M, Tennessee and Arkansas rank 13th, 12th, 10th and 7th, respectively, in run defense in the SEC.
All of that coupled with the Tigers’ woes in the passing game, Mauk failed to pass the 50 percent completion threshold for a fourth straight week, could be a recipe for relying on the running game down the stretch.
Pinkel “doubtful” Steward can return, White not expected to play Saturday: Running back Morgan Steward has been sidelined since August with a hip injury he suffered in the first week of training camp.
Pinkel had previously expressed optimism about Steward’s chances of returning, but on Monday his tone changed.
“Our big thing is we’ve got to get this thing healed. I’m like his dad,” Pinkel said. “I want the guy to be healthy. We have a guy who I think can be a great player. Not a good player, but a great player.”
The 6-foot, 210-pound redshirt sophomore carried the ball only 21 times last season, but flashed his potential in the spring.
Pinkel also spoke bearishly about the chances of wide receiver Darius White making his return Saturday. The senior was listed as questionable on the depth chart after straining his groin in practice last Wednesday. He did not play against Vanderbilt.
“He’ll have to make quite a turnaround in order to do it.” Pinkel said.
Penalty struggles: Penalties have plagued Missouri all year, and Saturday was no different. Missouri committed 14 penalties, the most in a game since 2007, for 100 yards.
Those numbers contributed to Missouri’s SEC-worst 58 penalties for 452 yards on the season.
“It’s discipline. It’s focus,” Pinkel said. “I’m responsible for that, so that’s kind of the message.”