Sure-handed victory

Tigers pass several tests in season-opening win
Sunday, September 5, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:57 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Missouri and Arkansas State offenses took different approaches Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

No. 18 Missouri featured a quick-strike approach while Arkansas State was methodical in the Tigers 52-20 win.

The Tigers scored seven touchdowns with no possession longer than the 3:14 it took Missouri (1-0) to score following the opening kickoff. A late field goal following a five minute drive in the fourth quarter was the longest it took Missouri to score.

Arkansas State (0-1), meanwhile dominated the time of possession, controlling the ball for more than 38 minutes compared to Missouri’s 21:36.

On the tenth play of the opening drive, junior quarterback Brad Smith threw the first of a career-tying three touchdown passes. He found tight end Martin Rucker open down the left sideline and Rucker leaped into the end zone with a touchdown for his first career reception.

Smith said he wanted to get Rucker a touchdown in his first game.

“I was thinking about that coming out, to get him his first touchdown his first game and then it happened to be his first catch,” said Smith, who said he thought the offense played well for its first game.

With the early 7-0 lead, the Tigers continued to succeed offensively and appeared ready to blow the game open as they added two more touchdowns in the opening quarter.

After forcing the Indians to punt, the Tigers marched down the field and Smith found Sean Coffey and Victor Sesay for first downs. After the 17-yard gain by Sesay, running back Damien Nash showed his speed and toughness on a 21-yard touchdown run.

Nash took the handoff, burst through the middle and broke three tackles, spinning away from the Indians’ defense for another score.

Coach Gary Pinkel said Nash showed the type of runner he can be.

“I thought Damien Nash showed he has great potential,” Pinkel said. “Because he not only made some plays, he has quickness and all the other things, acceleration, but he runs tough.”

Nash, who added a 15-yard scoring run in the third quarter when he bowled over an Indian defender at the three-yard line, gained a career-high 126 yards.

Nash said he was pleased with his performance, but he is not satisfied after his first game as Missouri’s starting running back.

“Every time I get the ball, I look for the end zone,” Nash said. “I just ran hard, earned some tough yardage.”

Arkansas State’s offense settled down on its second drive and quickly moved into Tigers territory, but a holding penalty on tight end Mike Brooks, the first of 14 penalties against the Indians, stalled the drive. On second-and-21, nose tackle Phil Pitts broke up an Indian screen play.

Pinkel said Pitts makes similar plays in practice, routinely.

“Phil drives our offensive coaches nuts during the practices, because you can never complete a screen against Phil Pitts, he always smells it out,” Pinkel said. “I’m glad he smelled this one out. It was awesome to see.”

Pitts stepped in front of the intended receiver at the Arkansas State 49 for his first career interception and rumbled into the end zone with a score, breaking a tackle at the 23-yard line.

Pitts said it was his first ever interception, unless backyard football games are counted, and he just saw open field ahead of him and was just hoping to score.

“I saw a lot of green,” Pitts said. “I don’t know if it was much of a move I made, Atiyyah (Ellison) made a good block for me.”

Although the Indians found themselves down three touchdowns with 5:29 left in the first quarter, they battled back, using the pass to move through the Missouri defense.

Junior quarterback Nick Noce, making his first career start, completed 19-of-26 passes for 240 yards and two touchdowns, before leaving the game with cramps in the third quarter. He briefly tried to return, but after collapsing on his first play back in the game, junior Devin Hollins took over and completed 7-of-11 passes.

Pinkel had high praise for Noce, but added that his defense did not play well.

“Nick Noce, they were concerned about him being a quality quarterback,” Pinkel said. “He certainly made some great throws and I thought he played exceptionally well.

“We made a lot of mistakes on defense, this game. I mean a lot of mistakes. I have to believe we’re better than that, and I do. The great thing is we get to correct those with a victory.”

Chuck Walker was the main target for the Indians, finishing with a career-best six catches for 126 yards. His biggest grab came on a third-and-15 play from the Missouri 47 with two minutes left in the first quarter. Walker streaked behind the Tiger defense and hauled in a 45-yard pass, before safety Nino Williams II forced him out of bounds at the two.

Two plays later, Noce found Oren O’Neal in the flat for Arkansas State’s first score.

The Tigers then helped Arkansas State stay in the contest, committing two turnovers in two plays. First, Alex Peoples intercepted Smith at the Tigers’ 29-yard line and following an Eric Niehouse field goal, Marcus Woods fumbled on his first career carry. Steven Tookes recovered for the Indians at the Missouri 38.

After Niehouse missed a 42-yard field goal, the Tigers resumed scored quickly again, with Smith finding Coffey for a 60-yard score on the team’s third play.

“It was a big game for myself,” Coffey said. “But we just have to work on being more consistent.”

Smith and Coffey teamed for five catches for 113 yards. Smith finished 14-of-22 for 233 yards. He also ran for 72 yards on nine carries, including a 34-yard run.

Smith said he has a good connection with Coffey and that was evidenced on the field.

“I definitely have a good feeling with Sean, we have a good relationship,” Smith said. “But all the guys out there, I feel comfortable with.”

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