STILLWATER, Okla. – The Missouri football team's ability to get production from running backs has significantly impacted their past two games.
It held them back against Nebraska. It kept them close against Oklahoma State.
Back-to-back losses always trigger an examination of problem areas. It was clear in Saturday's 33-17 loss to Oklahoma State, though, that the running game showed considerable improvement in the first half.
"We just went hard, you know, we had to get that (Nebraska) loss out of our system," running back Derrick Washington said. "We wanted to fight out, we wanted to come out and try to win this game. We played well the first half, but we didn't finish strong at all."
Earlier in the week, several offensive linemen predicted more yards for Washington and running back De'Vion Moore once holding penalties and other technical flaws were limited. Against the Cowboys, the entire Missouri team was flagged for just three penalties.
"Up front, they (the offensive line) was making holes for us, making lanes for us, and we was hitting hard," Washington said. "We was following our blockers, running hard. We had it going. And then I don't know what happened in the second half, we kind of just slowed up. Our defense was doing their job but we didn't step up at all."
Moore also noticed considerable running room early in the game.
"They did a tremendous job on the line today," Moore said. "They gave us opportunities. It was just our job to capitalize on them. We're trying to get the run game a little bit more efficient."
The Tigers played Oklahoma State relatively evenly through the first half Saturday, trailing only 24-17 after a late Cowboys score. The two primary backs carried 12 times for 62 yards in that half, good for an average of more than five yards.
"We blocked and ran the ball well," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. "Our passing game was working. We're best when both are working well. They help each other out a lot."
Even late in the game, when Missouri was trailing badly, the Tigers were confident in running the ball. On second down and long, De'Vion Moore found an opening and changed direction for a solid gain that boosted a critical Missouri drive.
"We had a good week of practice," he said. "We worked a lot on north-south running. Coach emphasizes just physical running. Run hard, hit the gap, don't tiptoe. That's all I really did. That's all all of our backs tried to do today."
Missouri will need to show much more improvement over the next week. The Tigers' next opponent is Texas, which was ranked No. 1 nationally in rushing defense coming into the Longhorns' game against Oklahoma.
Against Oklahoma's talented rushing duo of Chris Brown and DeMarco Murray, Texas completely shut down the opposing run game. Brown and Murray netted 20 yards on 17 carries Saturday in Dallas.
Last year, Missouri's running game was abysmal against the Longhorns. Texas took a commanding lead so quickly that Missouri could not run with any effectiveness. Washington and former running back Jimmy Jackson carried the ball 14 times for just 34 yards.
"We gotta play a physical game," Moore said. "They're a great team. That just makes us step it up."