Throughout fall camp, the Missouri football team's coaching staff gave its observations like they should be accepted facts.
The coaches referred to Derrick Washington as perhaps the offense's best weapon. Gary Pinkel said Washington and De'Vion Moore made one of the best running back tandems he had had at Missouri.
They talked like the Missouri running game would be the strength of the offense. Bringing back Washington, a second team All-Big 12 Conference performer, and combining him with Moore and Parade All-American Kendial Lawrence meant the Tigers could use their rushing attack to protect a young quarterback.
But after four games it seems that Blaine Gabbert isn't the one who needs help. Washington is averaging about 4 yards per carry this season, but a few long runs have helped his numbers. The reality is, that on a play-by-play basis, the Missouri running game has struggled, and concern has replaced Pinkel's air of confidence.
"We've got to run the ball better, period," Pinkel said Monday during the Big 12 coaches teleconference.
The latest stall in the ground game came in Missouri's 31-21 victory over Nevada on Friday night. The box score shows that the Tigers' running backs had 3.7 yards per carry, a figure that, while underwhelming, doesn't induce panic. Take out Washington's 42-yard run late in the game and that number shrinks to exactly 2 yards per rush.
Missouri's first victory against Illinois provided a similar performance. Overall, the top three Tigers backs ran 26 times for 80 yards at 3.07 yards per carry. Without a 32-yard carry by Washington? Less than 2.
The numbers from both of Missouri's home wins are an improvement. In the late victory over Bowling Green, Washington and Lawrence combined for 169 yards on 30 carries, and Lawrence averaged 7.7 yards on 10 rushes against Furman.
But even with those numbers, the running game has not produced in the way Pinkel envisioned, and there are several possible explanations.
Moore suffered a high ankle sprain against Illinois and has had one carry since. The offensive line, another presumed strength, might not be as strong as supposed, and Missouri's bigger commitment to the run might have opposing defenses making a bigger commitment to stopping it.
In the past, that would be a problem Pinkel could easily resolve, but this season, the plans for his offense make the decision more difficult.
"(When) we had Chase Daniel, and if they overloaded on the run, we just wouldn't run it," Pinkel said. "We'd throw it 15 times in a row until they backed out. We want to run the ball a little bit more, so there's a bit of a conflict there from a strategy standpoint. A spread offense is designed to open up running lanes, but how much do you want to throw your young quarterback? All those issues are the dynamics we're dealing with."
Whatever the cause, once the Tigers enter their conference schedule, the defenses will be faster, the pass rushes more relentless and the need for balance even more important. And Pinkel knows it.
"We're going to work to try to make it better," Pinkel said. "But I would agree that we haven't been running the ball as well as I would've liked."