Senior running back Russell Hansbrough skipped through a hole on the right side and galloped 20 yards on Missouri’s second play from scrimmage Saturday against Southeast Missouri State.
“That was typically what we’ve been saying all camp,” Tigers coach Gary Pinkel said. “He’s just a different player than he was a year ago and, by the way, a year ago he was a pretty good player.”
Unfortunately, that was the extent of the highlights for No. 21 Missouri’s run game in a season-opening 34-3 win against the Redhawks.
Hansbrough, who rushed for 1,084 yards with 10 touchdowns last season, suffered a sprained right ankle when he was rolled up on a tackle along the sideline.
He returned on the next drive and had a 3-yard run before the Tigers’ medical staff decided to shut Hansbrough down for the remainder of the game as a precaution.
Without Hansbrough, Missouri’s ground game suffered, managing only 7 yards in 12 carries during the first half, aside from his production, with a net of zero rushing yards in the second quarter.
The Tigers finished with 98 yards rushing in 33 carries, a shade less than 3 yards per carry. Take away Hansbrough’s two runs, and the rest of the team combined for 75 yards in 31 carries — or barely a 2.4-yard average.
That’s not good enough against Vanderbilt or Kentucky, so it’s cause for alarm when it happens against a Football Championship Series foe.
“It was a combination of a lot of things,” Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Henson said when asked Monday about the run game’s struggles. “Really, it wasn’t the same thing every time, which I guess is good news and in some ways it’s bad news. It feels like you’re trying to put your finger in a lot of leaks in the dam.
“It was really just consistency. … We’ve got to get more consistent. The only way I know to do that is their practice. We keep working and keep getting better at doing all the little things right.”
Losing senior center Evan Boehm, who also suffered a right-ankle sprain, at halftime didn’t help the run game, but depth at running back already had been a concern throughout spring practice and fall camp.
The poor showing against Southeast Missouri did nothing to quiet those worries.
Sophomore Ish Witter, who serves as Hansbrough’s primary backup, led the Tigers with 33 yards in 13 carries, including five carries for negative yards.
Senior Tyler Hunt, who was limited in practice before the game with a groin injury, gained 20 yards in five carries and also had a 78-yard touchdown reception.
Junior Morgan Steward, who is being brought along slowly after missing last season with a hip injury, added 14 yards in five carries, and sophomore Chase Abbington, a junior-college transfer, added a 5-yard run.
“Probably the silver lining is that through experience, they’re going to continue to get better,” Henson said. “... We’ve got to get those guys out there, get them in the fire and see where we’re at.”
Hansbrough remains questionable for a 6 p.m. kickoff Saturday at Arkansas State in Jonesboro, Ark.
“Obviously, if we get Russell back and he stays healthy, that’s going to take care of a lot of problems,” Pinkel said. “But you never know if that’s going to happen.”
Hansbrough said Monday that he plans to play, but he expressed confidence that the run game will improve even if he can’t go.
“We just went and watched film and learned from what we were doing, especially the younger guys,” Hansbrough said. “... The holes were there, but we just weren’t hitting them like we were supposed to.”
He cited inexperience as a factor but also said the Tigers trust in their talent.
“That comes with it,” Hansbrough said. “They don’t really have a lot of game experience, but we have faith in them.”
The Tigers also might utilize more designed quarterback runs to provide a spark.