ORLANDO, Fla. — Even before reaching the end zone, Missouri's Marcus Murphy knew.
After catching the ball at the 34-yard line with 7:04 left in the third quarter, the sophomore running back and returner sprinted a few steps forward. Seeing a gang of gold Central Florida shirts in front of him, he broke back left, eluding tacklers and setting up a line of blockers.
He hit the open field around the 50-yard line, with a corral of teammates flanking him to the right. As he jetted towards the far end zone, Shane Ray sealed off Central Florida’s punter, Jamie Boyle, knocking the Knights’ last line of defense off of his feet with a block.
At the 10-yard line, Murphy began to smile. He nodded. He knew.
“Once I seen the last crack-back block, I knew that I had it,” Murphy said. “I just wanted to go ahead and finish and celebrate with my guys in the end zone.”
The return touchdown, Murphy’s third of the season, gave the Tigers a 14-10 lead. Missouri wouldn’t relinquish it, hanging on to beat Central Florida 21-16 at Bright House Networks Stadium in Orlando.
Murphy, who missed all of the 2011 season with a shoulder injury, set the Missouri record for return touchdowns in a season with the big play in Saturday’s win. He also tied Jeremy Maclin’s record for career return touchdowns, with three.
The smiling, the nodding and the celebrating would not have been possible, though, if not for Ray’s explosive block on Boyle, Central Florida’s punter.
Murphy saw the block in his peripheral vision. While he couldn’t identify the blocker, he knew what the result would be.
“I actually thought it was Jaleel Clark, but whoever it was, it was a good block,” Murphy said. “I was looking to make him miss, but he cleaned him up for me, so it was a clean shot to the end zone.”
Momentum seemed to shift immediately after the return. Before the play, Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles had been consistently moving the Knights downfield, at one point completing 12 straight passes in the second quarter. Running back Storm Johnson also had success, rushing through and around Missouri’s defensive line to the tune of 84 yards on only 11 carries.
After Murphy’s touchdown scamper, though, the Knights’ next four drives seemed eerily similar.
Punt. Punt. Punt. Punt.
After the game, Missouri coach Gary Pinkel acknowledged the return’s role in shifting momentum back in his team’s favor.
“If you can have a guy like Marcus Murphy, every time he touches the football — him and the guys that block for him — they can change a football game,” Pinkel said.
“That was a huge momentum play. Just give him a step, give him a little bit of space, and he can turn something very average into something great. He certainly did that.”
When Murphy settled under the ball at his own 34-yard line, he wasn’t expecting much. Gold Central Florida jerseys were looming in front of him, waiting to descend on the returner like sharks on a wounded seal.
With a few steps, a juke and a cut to the outside, Murphy escaped danger. And for the third time this season, the result was a nod and a smile.
“I wasn’t expecting to take it to the crib. I wasn’t expecting it to be as open as it was,” he said, laughing. “It opened up at the end.”