Missouri’s run game appeared to be fixed for at least one game during last Saturday’s win against South Carolina.
The Tigers, who’d been limited to 111 yards or less in three of four previous games, battered the Gamecocks for a season-high 163 yards in 42 carries, including the season’s first touchdown by a running back.
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Sophomore Ish Witter iced a 24-10 victory with a 1-yard plunge in the third quarter. He finished with a career-high 98 yards in 17 carries.
“We were blocking better, so there were creases there that I could have run through,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel joked after the win. “Well, maybe not me, but there were some creases there where he had opportunities and he started breaking some tackles and running a little bit harder.”
Witter wasn’t the only one whose effort made a difference.
The offensive line played with more an edge, making life easier on Witter and senior Russell Hansbrough, who had season highs with 11 carries for 43 yards against South Carolina.
“I felt like we were more physical at the point of attack than we had been in the games previous to that,” Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Henson said. “That’s the way we’ve got to continue to be the rest of the season, obviously, with some very physical football teams we’re getting ready to play.”
Offensive line coach A.J. Ricker doesn’t think the Tigers’ line was dogging it during the first four games, but the intensity level certainly ratcheted up against South Carolina.
“There’s no magic to us,” Ricker said. “Guys just challenged themselves to play a lot more physical and that’s all it was.”
Missouri’s line did a better job sustaining and finishing blocks, which will be critical again versus a Gators’ defense that ranks second in the SEC with 46 tackles for a loss this season.
Florida’s 222 yards lost on negative plays rank second in the nation this season behind only Penn State, putting a premium on Missouri’s new found physicality carrying over.
“Instead of, ‘OK, I’m blocking my guy,’ now, (it’s), ‘Hey, I’m trying to bury this guy and drive him and strain,’” Ricker said. “I wouldn’t say it’s playing harder. It’s just the mentality’s got to change.”
The performance against the Gamecocks was a fantastic first step, but the challenge gets tougher against a Gators team that allows only 97.8 yards per game on the ground.
“The way they attacked this game is kind of the way they need to attack the rest of the season …,” Ricker said. “That’s how we should’ve played from week one. I guess that’s the most disappointing thing, but it’s never too late. Hopefully, we’ve got to build on this, for sure, this week.”
Hansbrough is expected to be close to 100 percent for the first time since suffering a sprained ankle on his first carry Sept. 5 against Southeast Missouri.
Witter also is progressing, but more in terms of football IQ than health. He’s becoming more decisive as he gains experience, which showed last week when he didn’t have any rushes that lost yards.
“He’s understanding the blocking schemes,” Tigers running backs coach Brian Jones said. “That was one of the big areas we had to work on. He was just used to kind of going out there and running back in high school. Even last year, I don’t really think he understood the value of knowing what was happening in front of him.”
Now that Witter does, he’s learning to get up field quicker, maximizing the gain each play.
“I’m all about the north-and-south deal,” Ricker said.