Missouri finds success on the ground, pounces all over Florida 45-16

Larry Rountree III and Ish Witter combined for 166 yards on the ground to power the Tigers past the Gators on Saturday.

Maneater File Photo

The personnel was the same, but the team – both in strategy and in attitude – most certainly was not.

Missouri got its swagger back Saturday, rolling over the Florida Gators in a 45-16 victory in the team’s most complete game of the season. The Tigers were in control on both sides of the ball from start to finish en route to the team’s first Southeastern Conference win of the year.

After a blistering “Locktober,” Missouri strayed from its fast-paced, pass-heavy offensive attack Saturday, opting to rely more on its running backs. The strategy paid off, as the Tigers’ running game powered Missouri from the opening snap.

The tandem of freshman Larry Rountree III and senior Ish Witter ran rampant on the Gators’ defense. The two carried the ball a combined 32 times for 166 yards, and Rountree III accounted for all three of Missouri’s rushing touchdowns.

Rountree III said running the ball and wearing down the Gators’ defense was the gameplan all week.

“We knew coming in that their weakest point was the run game,” Rountree III said. “So we knew we were just going to run it down their throats the whole time.”

The rushing attack as a whole was particularly efficient. Running the ball on 68.6 percent of their snaps, the Tigers ran for 227 total yards, averaging 4.9 yards per carry.

Quarterback Drew Lock, who dropped back just 20 times, even got in on the action, rushing for 35 yards, including an 11-yard run for a first down in the first quarter.

After the game, head coach Barry Odom said the emphasis on the running game was part of the team’s goal to be more physical than its opponent.

“We had talked about a couple of things that we need to have in our favor, and one of them was playing physical,” Odom said. “There were things with our alignment on what they were giving us structurally on the other side where we felt we had an advantage on being able to run the ball.”

Odom was also pleased with the toughness his running backs brought onto the field.

“I thought Ish and Larry did a good job running with some physicalness about them,” Odom said. “Their pad level was exactly where it needed to be and we got some tough yards in there.”

A good day for most quarterbacks has become a modest one for Lock, and that’s what Saturday was for the junior gunslinger. Lock completed 15 passes for 228 yards with three touchdowns and one interception on the day in a game in which the Tigers passing game took the backseat for the first time this season.

Unlike the past four games, it was Lock’s rushing performance, not his passing, that dominated the conversation after the game on Saturday. Lock pointed out that his ability to run has always been there and that it’s something that could continue to help the offense going forward.

“I think it opens it up quite a bit,” Lock said. “It’s gonna lighten the box, and people are going to have to expect me on the run.”

While the offense found a change of pace, Missouri’s defense looked confident on its home field in its strongest performance of the season.

Plagued by missed tackles and blown coverages for much of this season, those struggles disappeared on Saturday, and the Tigers’ defense made life difficult for quarterback Malik Zaire and the Gators’ offense in the graduate transfer’s first start of the season.

Even as the offense found success in short spurts, Florida was stifled by Missouri nearly every time it crossed midfield. Going five of 13 on third downs, the Gators struggled to develop complete drives, with the Missouri defense keeping Florida out of the end zone until the 5:34 mark in the fourth quarter.

Odom knew the defense had the ability to make big stops and said holding the Gators to field goals and keeping them out of the end zone was huge for Missouri.

“When they get down in the red zone, we’ve got to get into a position where we’re forcing them into field goals,” Odom said. “If you can hold them to that, that’s a win on the defensive side. I’m proud of the effort from them today.”

Redshirt senior defensive back Anthony Sherrils, who had his strongest game of the season with a fumble recovery, an interception and six tackles, said Saturday’s performance from the defense fit in with the defense’s philosophy.

“We live by the saying ‘bend don’t break,’” Sherrils said. “So we can bend, we can give up a big chunk of yardage, but just don’t give them the touchdown.”

Registering a third consecutive win on Saturday to bring its record to 4-5 on the season, Missouri now finds itself one step closer to getting to six wins and a bowl game. Needing to win two of its final three games, Missouri's chance of making a bowl game has become a very real one in a season that at one point appeared lost.

But even with his team in the midst of an impressive season turnaround, Odom has no interest in talking about the bigger picture. According to him, it’s not going to cross anyone’s minds.

“We’re aware of it, but we won’t talk about it in here,” Odom said. “I know that’s a boring answer, but we’ve got something going right now that we’ve got to focus on one day at a time.”

Edited by Joe Noser | jnoser@themaneater.com

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