If Missouri’s looking for a building block from its second straight lopsided road loss in Southeastern Conference play, look no further than the performance of the running game Saturday at Florida.
Granted, there are some caveats.
The Tigers did the bulk of the damage — 145 yards on 21 carries — with the game already decided in the fourth quarter against a collection of the Gators’ non-starters.
Still, Missouri’s 265 yards rushing were the most against an SEC opponent since gashing Texas A&M for 335 in November 2014.
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It also was the most rushing yards Florida has allowed in three seasons and the most in a conference game since Mississippi State churned out 351 yards during a September 2000 victory.
“Knowing we could do that against that defense, going into these other SEC games your confidence is up more … ,” said junior Ish Witter, who totaled 15 carries for 82 yards with a touchdown. “Our linemen have done a good job at making holes, but we haven’t been patient in reading them. That’s what we started doing Saturday, and you guys saw what happened.”
Freshman running back Damarea Crockett, in particular, flashed his immense potential with 14 carries for 145 yards, which are both career highs.
“The running backs have done a hell of a job the last couple weeks practicing, and we’re finally starting to see some big runs going,” junior right guard Alec Abeln said.
Abeln gave the bulk of the credit for Saturday’s breakthrough — at least that’s what Mizzou hopes it was — to the backs.
“We got a couple big runs and that’s great, but we still want to do more up front … ,” he said. “I almost think we took a step back this week ... as finishers and how physical we were at the point of attack.”
That was a theme repeated by sophomore right tackle Paul Adams.
“There were definitely areas when we watched (the film), it was kind of sickening,” he said. “We saw plays that we definitely could’ve finished our blocks longer. The 6-yard runs could’ve turned into 16- to 20(-yard runs).”
Crockett, who leads the Tigers with 390 yards rushing and a 7.2-yard average per carry, didn’t mind the offensive line’s self-critical assessment and believes the game could mark a turning point for a run game that had averaged 86 yards rushing in losses to Georgia and LSU.
“We can build a lot off of it actually,” Crockett said. “We take it as a learning experience. If the line felt like they took a step back, I feel good about that. That means that they know they can get better. We can all get better. There’s always room for improvement.”
Crockett is responsible for much of that optimism. He’s yet to be tackled for a loss on 54 carries this season.
“He’s understood that he’s not going to run away from a lot of guys,” first-year MU coach Barry Odom said. “He’s got to be able to go north and south, get behind his pads and use the physical skill set that he has. … He’s getting a feel for it a little more and understanding that east and west is not really going to be his game. If he sees a crease, it’s OK to get 4 yards. We’re OK with that.”
Midway through his first season, Crockett, a native of Little Rock, Ark., is becoming OK with it, too.
“One of the first things I had to learn (is) that you're not the fastest guy on the field anymore,” he said. “Everyone’s fast. As I learned that, things started to open up more for me and got way better and way easier. I’m starting to learn that it’s more of a fundamental game at running back.”
As he better grasps the offense, Crockett’s vision is improving, and he’s continuing to work on ball security after putting the ball on the ground a couple times earlier in the season.
“He’s definitely a kid that’s going to be the truth of the school in a few years, like next year,” Witter said.