Early in the third quarter Saturday at Memorial Stadium, South Dakota State pulled within three points against Missouri, raising the specter of an unthinkable upset of the reigning SEC East champions.
Marcus Murphy was determined to avoid being on the wrong end of history and told fellow MU senior Darius White about it.
“Hey, Money, man, I’m (going) to return this,” Murphy said, referring to White by his nickname.
White smiled and said, “All right, come on, man.”
One-hundred and two yards later, Murphy proved prophetic and the 24th-ranked Tigers didn’t look back in a 38-18 victory.
“That’s what leaders do — step up and try to make big plays when their time comes,” White said. “That’s exactly what he did. When he scored off that kick return, that gave us a lot of momentum and a lot of confidence.”
During the first quarter, Missouri appeared poised to blow out the Jackrabbits, who are ranked No. 10 in the Football Championship Subdivision.
After well-documented struggles in training camp, Missouri’s passing game found its legs as sophomore Maty Mauk tossed two long touchdowns to White in the opening eight minutes.
The Tigers, who won their 13th consecutive season opener and improved 14-0 against FCS competition, needed only three plays and 50 seconds to snag the lead.
Mauk whistled a 44-yard strike down the middle as White split two defenders to reach the end zone, but the lead was short-lived.
On the Jackrabbits’ first snap from scrimmage, senior running back Zach Zenner showed off the skill set that has allowed him to become only the second FCS player with two 2,000-yard seasons.
Zenner corralled a bad snap, pinning the ball to his right shoulder after it slipped through quarterback Austin Sumner’s hands, before dipping and darting through a few levels of Missouri’s defense and turning on the jets for a 75-yard touchdown.
“I went over and told the guys, ‘That’s just one play. Let’s get after them now,’” said Markus Golden, who led the Tigers with 10 tackles, including three for a loss and 1 1/2 sacks.
Defensive coordinator Dave Steckel’s run defense only allowed 44 yards on 31 carries the rest of the way.
Meanwhile, Missouri, 1-0, retook the lead on a 39-yard touchdown from Mauk to White.
The Tigers never trailed again, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t nervy moments for the announced crowd of 60,589.
Missouri’s lead reached two touchdowns after Duron Singleton picked off Sumner, setting up a 10-yard touchdown scamper by Russell Hansbrough, who finished with a career-high 126 yards on 20 carries.
However, the inconsistency that plagued the Tigers during camp returned during the next two quarters as South Dakota State hung around thanks to a second-quarter field goal and Zenner’s second touchdown — a 3-yard run off a direct snap that capped a 10-play, 75-yard march on the opening drive of the second half.
Sophomore Zach Lujan’s two-point conversion to senior Jason Schneider made it 21-18, but Murphy’s heroics — his 102-yard return is the longest play in Tigers history since Joe Stewart’s 100-yard kickoff return touchdown Oct. 30, 1976, at Oklahoma State — restored breathing room.
“It opened up wide right down the middle, so I just took it to the house,” said Murphy, who finished with 204 all-purpose yards. “I didn’t get touched.”
Still, led by Lujan, who stepped in when Sumner suffered a foot injury after catching a spike in the Faurot Field turf, the Jackrabbits outgained the Tigers 140-0 through the air in the third quarter and threatened to answer Murphy’s touchdown with another of their own.
Lujan picked on sophomore cornerback Aarion Penton for completions of 45 and 8 yards on back-to-back plays, but he went to the well too many times.
Penton’s interception in the end zone effectively ended any comeback hopes, especially after Mauk, who finished 13 of 21 for 178 yards with three scores and no interceptions, added a 29-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown to senior Bud Sasser.