Missouri had decided to play it safe, literally.
Up 20-0 in the third quarter Saturday at Florida, the Tigers sent the punt safe team onto the field fearing a fake as the Gators lined up fourth-and-1 at their own 41.
“Our defense goes out and we just change a safety for a returner,” Tigers coach Gary Pinkel said.
It didn’t matter with senior Marcus Murphy deep.
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Florida punter Kyle Christy sent a 41-yard punt downfield and, despite a crew of relatively inexperienced blockers, Murphy motored to the end zone for an MU-record seventh career return touchdown.
“On safe, I usually fair catch it, but the defense did a good job blocking it,” Murphy said. “I just wanted to get a couple yards and get good field position, but it opened up and they held their blocks, so I was able to score.”
Catching the ball inside Missouri’s 20, Murphy beat linebacker Jeremi Powell with a jab step right then accelerated upfield.
Murphy faked out two more Gators defenders at the 25 then split a quartet of pursuers at the 28.
“He shot through an area about 8 inches wide and a bunch of guys collided,” Pinkel said. “The rest was history. Again, it’s beautiful to watch it.”
Murphy ran around a helpless Christy at the 36 before cutting to the sideline off a Kentrell Brothers block and turning on the afterburners.
Markus Golden picked off Powell again at Florida’s 25 and Murphy outran defensive back Marcus Maye the rest of the way for an 82-yard touchdown.
Sophomore linebacker Michael Scherer called it “most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen in my life. … I don’t know if that’s ever happened in the history of football, somebody running one back on punt safe.”
It’s happened countless times, but it’s still unusual and special, even for a seasoned return specialist as accomplished as Murphy.
“After watching the punt return from Florida, that’s my favorite,” Murphy said. “The last one Saturday night. … I did a lot of cuts and made a lot of guys miss, but it was a safe team.”
Murphy ranks fourth in the NCAA in kickoff returns (34.3) and 10th in punt returns (15.6). He entered the Florida game tied with former Missouri great Jeremy Maclin, who is in his sixth season with the Eagles, for the most return touchdowns in program history at five.
With a 96-yard touchdown return on the opening kickoff against the Gators, Murphy — who owns the most punt-return touchdowns in MU history (four) and tied for the most kickoff returns (three) — moved alone into first place, a record he extended with his third-quarter, punt-return score.
Maclin said Murphy was a worthy successor, “He’s a beast. He’s a game-changer when he gets the ball in his hands. He can make a bunch of things happen. Kudos to him, for sure.”
Murphy is the first player in Missouri history with a kickoff and punt return touchdown in the same game. He’s also only the third Tiger to return the opening kickoff for a touchdown, joining Roger Wehrli (1967 at Iowa State) and Gahn McGaffie (2010 vs. Oklahoma).
“If you love football, Marcus Murphy is a player that anybody in the stands, if you’re going for the team he’s on or not, you’re going to stop and watch it,” senior linebacker Darvin Ruise said. “That’s just the kind of player he is.”
Murphy — who also had a 5-yard rushing touchdown in the first quarter at Florida — is the first college player in the last 15 seasons to score touchdowns on a punt return, kickoff return and rushing in the same game.
He’s also the first Missouri player to score touchdowns three different ways since Curtis Brown scored on a kickoff return, rush and reception in the 1976 season opener at USC.
“I take the return game very serious,” Murphy said. “It’s a special part of my position on this team. I know it can create momentum and just get guys going. It can put points on the board too, so I really take pride in being a returner.”
At Missouri, few, if any, have ever been better at it.
“He’s fast and he can run away from a lot of guys, but the thing about Marcus is he’s also tough,” Maclin said. “He’ll run through tackles and try to run a guy over if he has to. That’s what makes him special.”
Murphy’s all-time return touchdowns
Oct. 18, 2014 at Florida; 82-yard punt return; W, 42-13
Oct. 18, 2014 at Florida; 96-yard kickoff return; —
Aug. 30, 2014 vs. South Dakota State; 100-yard kickoff return; W, 38-18
Oct. 13, 2012 vs. Alabama; 98-yard kickoff return; L, 42-10
Sept. 29, 2012 at Central Florida; 66-yard punt return; W, 21-16
Sept. 1, 2012 vs. Southeastern Louisiana; 72-yard punt return; W, 62-10
Sept. 1, 2012 vs. Southeastern Louisiana; 70-yard punt return; —
Missouri all-time kickoff/punt return touchdown leaders
Player; Total return TD; KOR TD; PR TD
1. Marcus Murphy; 7; 3; 4
2. Jeremy Maclin; 5; 2; 3
3t. Mike Fink; 3; 3; 0
3t. John Moseley; 3; 1; 2
5. Three players tied with 2*
* Leo Lewis (2 PR TD), Roger Wehrli (1 KOR TD, 1 PR TD), Don Smith (2 PR TD)
Note: Missouri is 48-15-1 when scoring on special teams.