Ish Witter saved his best performance on Faurot Field for his last, a 50-17 pounding that Missouri put on Tennessee on Saturday.
Throughout his Missouri career, the senior running back’s standout trait has been his ability to fit in. Coaches describe him as a model teammate. He got plenty of playing time as an underclassman because he was a good pass blocker and hardly ever fumbled.
When he did get the ball, he was hardly spectacular. Many – if not most – of his runs ended in violent collisions. He rarely made it past the second level, as his longest run in his first three years went for 27 yards.
Witter’s senior year is a lesson in perseverance. He finally topped the depth chart, as Damarea Crockett, who usurped Witter in a starting role last season, has missed four weeks with a shoulder injury.
Missouri (5-5, 2-4 Southeastern Conference) hasn’t missed a beat. Saturday marked the first time the Tigers scored at least 45 points in four straight games. Over that span, Witter has rushed for 413 yards and four touchdowns.
“He’s grown,” offensive lineman Kevin Pendleton said. “That’s just a testament to what kind of guy he is. Coming in, he knew what his strengths and weaknesses are. Over four years, he’s addressed them. He’s a complete back, and it’s showing on the field every Saturday.”
Witter got a long embrace from Barry Odom before running onto the field Saturday. Some of his runs against the Volunteers (4-6, 0-6) were met with less resistance. Witter ran 24 times and finished with a career-high 216 yards, 77 more than his previous high against Kentucky this year. He added a touchdown.
“Said we need you to run for about 216 yards tonight and average about 9 yards a carry, and he did it,” Odom joked about their moment in the tunnel before the game.
Witter didn’t meet with the media after his best performance as a Tiger. Instead, he picked a white stone from the “Rock M” with the team’s other seniors and visited with his family.
Odom said that Witter wasn’t himself during Wednesday’s practice. He “had a heck of a practice,” Odom said, but was quiet and lacked the typical bounce in his step. Odom and running backs coach Cornell Ford noticed and made sure everything was all right.
“He said, ‘Coach, I’m just really focused on finishing this the right way,’” Odom said.
It was the second consecutive week – and the second straight game against Tennessee – that Missouri’s tailbacks ran wild. It came as no surprise. The Vols lived up to their billing as the Southeastern Conference’s worst run defense.
Larry Rountree III had 18 carries for 155 yards and one touchdown and Missouri finished with 433 total yards on the ground. His highlight carry was a 63-yard scamper on third-and-long with less than a minute remaining in the first half that set up a Tigers touchdown.
It was the first time that two Missouri running backs went over 100 yards since the Tigers did so in Knoxville last season.
“Both tailbacks are running as physical and tough as we’ve had around here in a long time,” Odom said. “That doesn’t go unnoticed. Our sidelines feed off of that.”
Witter wasn’t the only senior to go off. J’Mon Moore caught three passes for 39 yards and a touchdown. Safety Anthony Sherrils forced two turnovers for the second straight game. Marcell Frazier had two sacks.
“It’s exciting because most of those guys are playing their best football,” Odom said.
It’s the fourth straight win for Missouri, which is one win away from bowl eligibility with two games – at Vanderbilt and at Arkansas – left on the schedule.
Before the game, each media seat got a pamphlet for the Liberty Bowl, which takes place Dec. 30 in Memphis. Representatives for the Taxslayer Bowl attended the Tigers’ blowout win over Florida last week.
Odom stayed mum on the bowl talk despite the growing momentum.
“We need to put this one behind us quick,” he said of Saturday’s win.
Tennessee, mired in its own coaching controversy with Butch Jones on a flaming hot seat, played with more fight than the Gators in the first half. Most of it wore off by the second, during which Missouri outscored the Volunteers 26-0.
True freshman Will McBride got his first career start for Tennessee, as Jarrett Guarantano – who started the previous four games – sat with an ankle injury he suffered last week against Southern Miss. McBride, harried from start to finish by a terrorizing Tigers defensive line, completed 16 of 32 passes for 139 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.
Drew Lock was better, but took a step back after a red-hot six-game stretch following the bye week. Lock completed 13 of 28 passes for 217 yards and four scores, though at least five passes were well-thrown balls that were dropped by his receivers.