You couldn’t tell by the final score, but there was a point in Missouri’s 58-14 season-opening win over Murray State on Saturday where it seemed like the Tigers had legitimate reason to worry.
It was early in the second quarter, and the Tigers — who trailed 14-13 — had just missed a field goal. At that point, they had also had an extra point blocked, the defense had proven to be leaky, and the offense had come up empty on a few drives that ended in the Racers’ territory.
Given the upsets throughout college football this weekend — K-State ring a bell? — it seemed as if Murray State had a chance, right?
Because two plays after Andrew Baggett missed a 30-yard field goal, senior cornerback E.J. Gaines stole the momentum back with an interception.
“Football is a long game,” said Gaines, who was not worried by the slow start. “Everybody knows anything can happen.”
Missourigot the ball at Murray State’s 33-yard line, and quarterback James Franklin hit receiver Jimmie Hunt for a 22-yard touchdown pass that put the Tigers ahead 20-14 with 11 minutes, 22 seconds left.
The game was an absolute rout from there. The Tigers ripped off 45 unanswered points, racked up 694 yards and showed literally everything the 58,038 fans who descended upon Memorial Stadium could presumably hope to see after last year’s 5-7 season.
A power running game? Check. A largely untested secondary that held up against the pass? Check. A quicker offensive tempo led by a quarterback eager for a bounce-back season? Check.
By the time the third quarter rolled around, there was even room for a feel-good story. Running back Henry Josey, who was making his first game appearance since a devastating knee injury against Texas in November 2011, ripped off a 68-yard touchdown run down the sideline that put Missouri ahead 51-14 with 6 minutes, 23 seconds left in the third quarter.
“I looked up and I thanked God,” said Josey, who finished with a team-high 113 yards in 13 carries. “I pretty much was screaming it. I hope He heard me. I was so happy.”
Josey was far from the only standout Tiger. After two touchdown runs by Russell Hansbrough — who rushed eight times for 104 yards on a variety of power running plays — kept the Tigers in the game early, Hunt’s touchdown catch and a 4-yard touchdown run by Marcus Murphy gave Missouri a 27-14 lead.
A 43-yard field goal by Baggett put Missouri ahead 30-14 right before halftime, but the Tigers didn’t let the break slow them down. After forcing a three-and-out, Franklin, who completed 26 of 38 passes for 318 yards and three touchdowns, connected with receiver Darius White for a 37-yard score, then hit receiver L’Damian Washington — one of 11 different players to catch a pass— for a 4-yard touchdown and a two-point conversion that made the score 44-14.
“A bunch of receptions from different guys, it’s pretty exciting as an offense and from my standpoint just to see all those guys getting the ball,” Franklin said.
It was a picture-perfect ending for Missouri, 1-0, despite a start that was less than ideal. Murray State scored before and after Hansbrough’s two touchdown runs, thanks in large part to the creativity of quarterback Maikhail Miller, who dazzled the Tigers with his passing and his scrambling. He even flummoxed the Tigers with his hands, scoring the go-ahead touchdown in the first quarter with a 5-yard catch on a gimmick play.
Murray State led 14-13 that at that point, a lead the Racers maintained into the second quarter. But after that, Missouri’s defense stepped up. They slowed down Miller’s scrambling with a variety of twists up front, and stymied the Racers’ passing attack. Gaines picked off two passes while safety Braylon Webb had another.
By the time the fourth quarter rolled around, it was clear the Racers could not keep up with a Missouri team that, once it got punched in the mouth, looked all too eager to continue its mission of wiping away last year’s disappointing campaign.
“We’re 1-0,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said, “and we’re healthy.”