“One play into the season? Really? Oh, no. Is that THE sideline?”
I imagine that was the reaction most Mizzou fans had after watching starting running back Russell Hansbrough scamper down the sideline for 20 yards on his first carry of the 2015 season, only to see him limp toward the trainers moments later. A Southeast Missouri State defender had rolled up onto Hansbrough’s ankle. He came back for one more carry later in the quarter before shutting it down for the day.
“That first play that he had, that was typical of what we’ve seen (at fall camp),” Pinkel said. “He’s just a different player than he was a year ago, and a year ago he was pretty good. He’s going to be okay, which is a good thing, but I was really frustrated for him, and for us, because he’s a difference-maker with the football. So hopefully we can get him back.”
It sounds like Hansbrough will be back on Saturday. He told the media on Monday that he would have been able to play if circumstances were different. That is to say, if Missouri were playing Georgia as opposed to SEMO, Hansbrough would have gone back into the football game. Alas, he went to the locker room, showered, and came out of the locker room wearing street clothes and eating a cheeseburger, according to the ESPN broadcast.
But what happened to the Tigers’ rushing attack after Hansbrough left the game was something that Mizzou fans should keep an eye on. Hansbrough rushed for 23 yards on his only two carries of the game. Backup running backs Ish Witter, Tyler Hunt, Morgan Steward and Chase Abbington combined for 72 yards on 24 carries, good for 3.0 yards-per-carry. That’s not going to cut it against a conference foe. It’s certainly not good enough against an FCS opponent.
“I just think they have to play more,” head coach Gary Pinkel said at his weekly press conference on Monday. “Ish did some really good things. We’ll get Hunt back to 100%. He was suffering with a groin up until that game. Morgan’s getting better. A few weeks from now he might be 100 percent. And we’ll bring Abbington in and get him ready to play, too. Obviously, if we get Russell back, and he stays healthy, that will take care of a lot of problems.”
This isn’t the Tigers’ run game that we’ve grown accustomed to over the past couple years. Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy rushed for at least 500 yards on better than five yards-per-carry in each of the past two seasons. The last time the Tigers’ backfield had such little depth behind a proven starter was in 2012. Kendial Lawrence was the starter, and then-backups Marcus Murphy and Russell Hansbrough combined for less than 100 carries on the season.
The running backs weren’t the only ones that carry the burden for the team’s rushing performance on Saturday, though. The offensive line also didn’t have its best day after All SEC-caliber center Evan Boehm sprained his right ankle. Boehm hurt himself on the Tigers’ second play from scrimmage. He was able to play for the remainder of the half, but he came out of the tunnel in street clothes and a boot after halftime. With their leader out and a two first-time starters getting their first action of major college football, the Tigers struggled to consistently win at the point of attack.
“It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t the best,” Boehm said on Monday. “We’re going to go out there this week and we’re going to correct that. We showed some weaknesses that we have on the offensive line. And that’s the same film that Arkansas State is getting. They’re going to attack those weaknesses.”
Boehm said that Alec Abeln and Nate Crawford made some uncharacteristic mistakes in their Mizzou debut. Abeln was moved from left guard to center after Boehm went down, which certainly didn’t help things. Add in a solid SEMO defensive front, and you have the makings for a rough day up front.
“A lot of it, we’re one guy away every time,” offensive line coach A.J. Ricker said. “You have four guys on the right guy, or five guys on the right guy, and one guy misses a block. That’s what I mean when I’m talking about being consistent.”
The offensive line and running backs will both look for some sort of consistency as they take the field again on Saturday against Arkansas State. A 2.7 yards-per-carry performance against SEMO results in the game staying closer than you want for longer than you want. The same type of performance against a solid Arkansas State team could be much more devastating.
“I don’t think the score of the USC game showed it, but they’re a dang good defense,” Boehm said. “It’s going to be another tough game for us. It’s hard to win in division one football… It’s going to be at their place, a night game, and their season opener. I know they’re excited, and we’re just as excited.”