Missouri clearly leaned on the run during a 38-18 victory Saturday against South Dakota State at Memorial Stadium, which is to be expected against a physically overmatched opponent.
The Tigers ran 23 times on first down and only passed five times.
Part of that was the success Missouri had on the ground, churning out 148 yards on those 23 first-down runs — an average gain of 6.4 yards.
Those figures include quarterback Maty Mauk’s 7-yard loss on a backward pass late in the second quarter when he flung the ball wildly toward the sideline while being spun around for a possible sack.
Remove that play from the equation and Missouri gained 155 yards on 22 carries, including Russell Hansbrough’s 14 carries for 105 yards and a touchdown, on first down.
More than half of the Tigers’ first-down runs netted at least 5 yards, a massive boon for the offense on subsequent downs that also can help the passing game get untracked.
Case in point, Mauk went five for five for 69 yards on first down, including a 39-yard touchdown bomb to Darius White, against a defense geared up the opening-down ground assault.
The Tigers won’t be that successful running on first down in every game.
It’s probably unsustainable, but the ability to establish the run early in the game and on early downs almost certainly will be critical, especially with a passing game still trying to find its legs.
Mauk struggled on third down, completing only two of six passes. One of the completions was a slip screen to Hansbrough that lost 3 yards, and the other was Mauk’s 29-yard rainbow to Bud Sasser in the third quarter.
It’s a fairly universal truth that passing gets tougher in obvious passing situations and third down often qualifies, so a small dip is expected.
It’s equally true that Mauk’s best friend this season will be a punishing ground game that sets the tone much like it did for last season’s Tigers offense, because it takes the pressure off the passing game and forces defenses to play more honest.
For those who are curious, Mauk was six of 10 for 84 yards, including a 44-yard touchdown to White on second down against the Jackrabbits.