Missouri takes care of business in season-opening beatdown of UT-Martin

The Tiger offense finished Saturday’s game with 558 total yards from scrimmage.
Drew Lock (right) smiles and high-fives wide receiver Johnathon Johnson after throwing him a five-yard touchdown pass with under three minutes left in the second quarter. Lock finished the game with 289 yards passing and four touchdowns. Johnson finished with the lone touchdown and 39 yard receiving. Jared Fisch

If there was ever a sense that Missouri’s 2018 season-opening game might yield anything less than dominance over Tennessee-Martin, the first quarter (and then some) of Saturday’s curtain-raiser put those concerns to rest.

The Tigers emerged from the quarter with a 14-0 lead that became 21-0 on the next play and 28-0 not long after, then turned on cruise control en route to a 51-14 win over the Skyhawks at Memorial Stadium. Missouri (1-0) got a sparkling, albeit abbreviated, performance from senior quarterback Drew Lock, who tossed for 289 yards and four touchdowns on 19-of-25 passing before taking his seat on the bench early in the second half.

"It was a different feel," Lock said. "I liked it. I enjoyed it. I know everybody on the offense enjoyed it. I definitely know the defense enjoyed it. They got to have a little break on the sideline every once in a while."

Two of those touchdown passes were on deep shots to fellow senior Emanuel Hall, who finished with four receptions for 171 yards to help lead the offensive attack. The Tigers scored touchdowns on each of their first four possessions while holding UT-Martin to three punts and a fumble.

It was 38-7 by halftime.

"I'm excited for our football team to start fast like we did early in the first quarter, then continue to push in a lot of areas; played at a pretty good pace on both sides of the ball," coach Barry Odom said. "There’s a lot of unknowns going into the first game, and still we’ve got miles to go."

Indeed, Missouri’s ability to top FCS opponent UT-Martin was hardly questioned ahead of the opener, so establishing breathing room early allowed the Tigers to ease into the season by honing in on areas of uncertainty.

One of those areas is the backfield, where two rotating tailback options are expected to split carries this year. Junior Damarea Crockett and sophomore Larry Rountree III both rushed for one touchdown in their first game sharing the load.

"There were some times where they were set up really nice and they read their blocks well, and then other times that they made something when there maybe wasn't something there," Odom said. "That's one thing I've talked about, creatively finding ways to run the football. It doesn't always have to be between the tackles. But when you can line up in 12 personnel, or 13 sometimes, and hand the ball off, that helps your offense out."

Crockett, who missed the final seven games of last season with an injury, came out for Missouri’s first possession and tallied six touches on a nine-play touchdown drive. He started the drive with an 11-yard carry and finished it with another for nine yards to give the Tigers their first points of the season, just 4:02 into the game.

UT-Martin went three-and-out a second straight possession and then it was Rountree III’s turn, but Hall stole the spotlight with a wide open, 34-yard touchdown catch from Lock.

"It was weird; the middle of the field was just wide open," Hall said. "The play wasn't supposed to be a post [route], but I was like: 'The middle of the field's wide open. I'm just gonna go.' And Drew somehow knew, and it was perfect timing. It was really good, quick thinking by Drew. That connection is something serious right now."

Lock cited the easy chemistry between him and Hall from years of playing together.

"I enjoy throwing the ball to [Hall]," Lock said. "I think this year's gonna be special. We're gonna see how far we can test those waters."

It was a 35-second trip, but Missouri’s third possession proved to be a bit more deliberate. Rountree III capped a 13-play, 55-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown run on the first play of the second quarter.

Rountree III finished with 14 carries for 58 yards while Crockett ran 12 times for 42 yards.

That third drive, which spanned 4 minutes and 33 seconds, also featured the first career touches for two freshmen: Tyler Badie at running back and Dominic Gicinto at wide receiver. Gicinto caught a pass for 10 yards and Badie ran for a gain of eight that helped set up the touchdown. Freshmen and newcomers were on exhibit several times throughout the afternoon.

"It's good for those [freshmen] to have some success," Odom said. "In practice that's shown up a little bit. It's good to see it in a game. And they also understand that they haven't arrived yet. They've got a long way go to, but I'm excited for all those guys."

One of the newcomers was redshirt freshman Taylor Powell, who relieved Lock in the third quarter after the starter found freshman Kam Scott for a 70-yard touchdown downfield. That touch, as it so happens, was Scott’s first, an emphatic welcome to college football.

Powell was 4-for-9 through the air after entering, a total that included a 44-yard bomb to Hall as his first collegiate completion. That possession ended in one of Tucker McCann’s two field goals.

"I'd never gotten a pass from Taylor [Powell], I don't think ever," Hall said. "Not even in practice. He threw a great ball."

Hall, who said his preseason priority was learning the route tree and expanding his game to include more than just deep runs, was still at his most successful when going downfield. He averaged 42.8 yards per catch, but was only targeted on short routes twice. Both of those targets resulted in incompletions.

"I’ll take that route tree every time," Odom said smiling.

The second of Hall's touchdowns, this one for 31 yards on the same go route, was a difficult grab around a defender while enduring a pass interference.

"Today we didn't really run our offense," Hall said. "Against a team like this, we just decided calling the whole play sheet was not necessarily what we wanted to do."

Free-wheeling worked for other receivers too, including redshirt junior Johnathon Johnson, who made an acrobatic touchdown grab on a jump ball from Lock in the second quarter. Lock's outing moved him into second place in all-time passing yards by a quarterback at Missouri. His total is now at 8,984 yards.

Missouri will have to await updates after a couple of injuries to notable starters on the defensive side. Senior Kevin Pendleton wasn’t able to join the rest of the offensive line, missing the game with a knee injury suffered at practice this week, and redshirt junior safety Khalil Oliver missed the second half with a sprained left ankle after making his first start as a Tiger.

"We thought it would be wise to keep [Pendleton] out," Odom said. "He'll be practicing next time we're back out on the field."

Regarding Oliver, Odom said: "If we wanted to get him back in, he felt like he could go and finish the game. Luckily, we didn't need that."

Missouri didn't need much of anything in terms of luck on Saturday. In what was perhaps viewed as the only certain win of the year, Odom got exactly what he wanted to see: a clean, dominant outing.

Edited by Adam Cole | acole@themaneater.com

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