Missouri’s bowl hopes – on life support after a dismal four-game homestand to start the season – are alive and well again.
The Tigers’ backfield duo of Larry Rountree III and Ish Witter led a 45-16 dismantling of Florida on Saturday at Faurot Field. The win kicked off a crucial four-game stretch to end the season with Missouri’s biggest win against the Gators in program history and one of its most lopsided victories ever against a Southeastern Conference opponent.
A full bowl game recovery isn’t guaranteed. The Tigers’ final home game is next week against a collapsing Tennessee program. They close the season on the road against Vanderbilt and Arkansas. Missouri (4-5, 1-4 SEC) has to win two of those final three games to get to eligibility.
“They’re aware of it,” coach Barry Odom said about his players reacting to a possible bowl trip, “but we won’t talk about it in here. … I’d love to talk a little more about grander ideas and thoughts, but I don’t know that we can handle that. We’ve got something going right now that we’re focused on one day at a time.”
Still, the prognosis is considerably better than what it was after the Tigers started 1-3 with blowout losses to South Carolina, Purdue and Auburn, and offensive guard Kevin Pendleton wants to see the team’s seniors off the right way.
“I said a couple weeks ago I want to send them out with a beach and some palm trees,” Pendleton said. “Something nice.”
Despite Drew Lock’s dominance over the last four weeks, Missouri turned to Rountree and Witter to carry the offensive load. The Tigers, who entered the game passing 52 percent of the time, rushed on 29 of its 40 plays in the first half.
The pair delivered. Missouri finished with 227 rushing yards, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. Even Lock contributed on the ground, picking up 35 yards on seven carries.
Both Rountree and Witter had personal stakes on the line Saturday.
Rountree’s was family – his mom and dad drove 16 hours from North Carolina to see him play.
He gave them a show, totaling 83 yards and three touchdowns on 15 attempts with his trademark punishing style. He had 74 yards and two scores in the first half. The freshman has 64 carries for 371 yards and five touchdowns this season.
Rountree has stepped up seamlessly after Damarea Crockett’s shoulder injury against Georgia, even though he got a late start this summer.
“The progress that he made throughout the course of fall camp, really understanding the run game, he understood that pretty quickly and grasped it,” Odom said.
Witter had a vendetta against the Gators (3-5, 3-4). Despite growing up in Tampa, Witter never got an offer to play for Florida.
“The fact that they didn’t even give me a scholarship, that was always in the back of my head before I came here,” he said. “Right before the game, I was thinking about that. Having a good game against them feels good.”
Witter rushed 17 times for 83 yards. Sixty-two of those yards came before halftime. The 5-foot-10 back also caught a 15-yard touchdown reception on a seam pattern from the slot.
“We’ve been running that in practice this week,” quarterback Drew Lock said. “I was debating, ‘We might need to put a different back in there. I don’t know if I’ll be able to see him through the trees.’”
The Tigers’ 46 rushing attempts were their most in a game this season, surpassing the 35 attempts they had against Missouri State in the opener.
Lock, who threw an interception in the end zone on Missouri’s first drive, recovered for an efficient day. He completed 15 of 20 passes for 228 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.
It was a stark improvement from his last two performances against the Gators, over which he completed 20 of 57 passes for 190 yards and four interceptions.
“Secretly, I had a lot of personal motivation going into this game,” Lock said. “Definitely haven’t had my best games against these guys, to the point where I was really looking forward to running up and down the sideline doing the Gator Chomp a couple times.”
Lock’s first touchdown went to tight end Kendall Blanton, who made his first touchdown reception of the season. Blanton, who is 6-foot-6, hauled in Lock’s lob over 6-0 Florida safety Jeawon Taylor and snuck one foot inbounds on the landing.
Lock connected with Witter in the second quarter to make it 21-3 then found J’Mon Moore in the end zone in the third quarter for a 4-yard score that made it 42-9.
Emanuel Hall added another play to his ever-growing highlight reel, bringing in a 50-yard bomb from Lock while his knees simultaneously bounced off the turf as he stooped to make the grab in the third quarter. He was ruled down at the 1-yard line, but Rountree scored one play later.
Hall finished with five receptions for a game-high 117 yards. Moore had five catches for 64 yards.
The Gators entered Saturday’s game in crisis. Florida had lost three consecutive conference games, including a 42-7 loss to Georgia last weekend – its worst loss to the Bulldogs since 1982.
The three-game skid cost Jim McElwain his job, but the Gators’ free fall continued into Saturday. One Florida staffer remarked in the press box before the game that half the team was interested in going to a bowl game, but the other half was not.
The Gators played like they had better December plans.
Florida’s implosion was Missouri’s gain. Randy Shannon’s promotion from defensive coordinator to interim coach did little to inspire the Gators’ defense, which allowed 298 yards on 40 plays in the first half. The Tigers went into the break leading 28-6, scoring touchdowns on their final four possessions of the half.