SHREVEPORT, La. — Throughout an up-and-down season, one thing that remained constant for the Missouri Tigers was a successful rushing attack. And in the season-concluding Independence Bowl on Monday, it was that rushing attack that led the Tigers to a dominating 41-24 win over North Carolina.
The Tar Heel rush defense was vaunted entering the game, having allowed an average of just more than 106 yards per game. But Missouri had little to no problems running all over the Heels, who boast several players who could soon be playing on Sundays.
Led by sophomore quarterback James Franklin, Missouri ran for 192 yards in the first half and racked up 337 yards on the ground by night’s end. Missouri offensive linemen had little trouble opening up huge holes, and Tiger ball carriers broke one-armed tackling attempts with ease.
Between a day-after-Christmas game day and a very rainy afternoon in Shreveport, attendance was low. It didn’t appear that the number of people in the stands matched the announced paid attendance of 41,728.
The gaps for Missouri to run through were as big as some of those gaps between small pods of spectators in the stands.
After the game, Franklin and the Missouri running backs heaped the credit on their teammates on the offensive line.
“Our offensive line did a great job,” senior running back De’Vion Moore said. “They went out there and executed against a defense that is good. When they execute, it makes it easier for us to execute.”
Moore said it was hard to believe some of the holes the offensive line created.
“Sometimes you look, and you’re like, ‘Oh man, is this really happening?’”
The running game fueled a big offensive night for the Tigers. The Missouri offense scored an Independence Bowl record 31 points in the first half, gaining points on each of its five possessions in the half. Things slowed down in the second half, but Missouri did post 10 more points before the game clock ran out.
“Sometimes when you play bowl games, you don’t know what you’re going to get in the first half,” North Carolina head coach Everett Withers said of Missouri’s dominance in the game’s first 30 minutes.
The highlight shows won’t feature too many runs in their packages, as Missouri’s first touchdown came on a wild trick play that ended with junior wide receiver T.J. Moe throwing a 40-yard touchdown pass to fellow receiver Wes Kemp. After getting a backward pass from Franklin, Moe found a wide-open Kemp, but Kemp didn’t catch the ball in stride, perhaps the effect of receiving a pass from a fellow wide receiver.
“Well, it wasn’t a spiral,” Kemp said jokingly.
As unexpectedly porous as North Carolina’s rush defense was, one of its own running backs was as unexpectedly ineffective. Freshman Giovani Bernard was one of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s top running backs this season, but he struggled to find any room to run Monday. The Missouri rush defense was stout, and tackles in the backfield were common. Bernard ran for just 31 yards on the night, and the Tar Heels had just 37 yards total.
“That’s very difficult to get that stat against those guys,” Pinkel said.
The pass defense of the Tigers was not quite as impressive, allowing the three North Carolina touchdowns on pass plays by quarterback Bryn Renner.
This season was marked by a shift from prolific passers to a more run-focused style for the Tiger offense, and even without All-Big 12 First Team running back Henry Josey on Monday, the Tigers excelled on the ground. Franklin was the star of the show, going over 100 yards passing and rushing. He was named the Offensive Player of the Game for his efforts, and he cracked the all-time top-five list for all-purpose yards in an Independence Bowl. The No. 1 spot on the list is former Missouri quarterback Brad Smith, who amassed 432 all-purpose yards in the 2005 Independence Bowl.
After the game, many people evaluated Franklin’s style, with Withers calling the Missouri quarterback “an extra running back.” Moore agreed with that comparison.
“James is amazing,” Moore said. “It’s exciting when you see him take off with the ball. In our minds, there’s no doubt that he’s going to make a play. Us in the running back group, we see him as a running back with us. If James gets the ball, it’s like one of us getting the ball. We get thrilled about it.”
Not overlooked was the performance of junior running back Kendial Lawrence, who also dominated the Tar Heel defense. He carried the ball 16 times for 108 yards, averaging 6.8 yards per carry, and he scored a touchdown as well.
The victory ended a bowl-game drought for the Tigers, who had fallen in their previous two postseason appearances, losing last season's Insight Bowl to Iowa and the 2009 Texas Bowl to Navy.
After the win, coaches and players were surprised to learn of the pre-game chaos created when Truman the Tiger shattered the crystal Independence Bowl trophy. Pinkel was just pleased it didn’t affect his team’s running game.
“I’m glad he didn’t carry the football.”