Murphy’s law: Mizzou enjoys many happy returns in big win at Florida

Marcus Murphy's 96-yard return for a touchdown on the opening kickoff set the tone for the Tigers.

Kim Klement/Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Missouri’s offense desperately needed some kind of boost after getting shut out for the first time since 2002 in their game against Georgia a week ago.

Marcus Murphy delivered the answer right away with a 96-yard return for a touchdown on the opening kickoff to set the tone for the Tigers. The versatile all-purpose back showed his explosiveness once again as he found a seam and went untouched for the sixth touchdown return of his career.

But he wasn’t done.

The 5-foot-9, 195-pound senior opened the scoring in the second half before the Tigers’ offense touched the ball, returning a punt 82 yards for a touchdown. This time, two defenders got their hands on Murphy but couldn’t bring him down before he got to the left sideline and outran the rest of the Florida Gators to end any hopes of a comeback in a 42-13 win.

It’s tough to measure the worth of a player like Murphy, though his nearly 4,000 all-purpose yards might be a good place to start. Often his scores are worth a lot more than just six points, and that was certainly the case Saturday night.

The Tigers got just one first down on their first three drives, which could have presented a considerable field position problem. Instead, thanks to Murphy’s momentum-changing touchdown and a couple of Florida fumbles, Missouri got the benefit of a short field.

Murphy even added a second score to cap off a 19-play drive in the first quarter, when he ran into the end zone from five yards out. That marked his first rushing touchdown this season and the 13th of his career, but it’s Murphy’s abilities as a return man that make him one of the most valuable weapons in the SEC.

FOUR DOWNS

— Mizzou pass rush back in control. Life had already been difficult enough for Florida’s struggling quarterbacks coming into Saturday’s game.

Missouri’s relentless defensive line simply poured the gasoline on the fire for junior Jeff Driskel and freshman Treon Harris. They couldn’t find any sort of rhythm in the face of constant pressure, and their accuracy clearly suffered when they managed to get the ball away.

As usual, junior defensive end Shane Ray led the attack with two sacks, including one that turned into a 21-yard fumble return for a touchdown by defensive end Markus Golden. Mizzou finished with six sacks and pressured the quarterbacks on countless other occasions, undoubtedly making a difference in forcing six Florida turnovers.

Other than a disappointing performance in the 31-27 loss to Indiana without Golden, the Tigers’ defensive line has been a constant strength in the face of many other issues for Gary Pinkel’s team. Defensive tackle Harold Brantley continues to dominate on the inside, and even backups such as Charles Harris and Marcus Loud have left their mark by overpowering offensive lines.

Nose tackle Lucas Vincent also recovered a fumbled handoff, and Golden should have been credited with a forced fumble that officials ruled an incomplete pass. 

Even Florida’s first touchdown came on a desperation heave when it looked like Harris was going down for another sack.

Coaches always say the key to a great defense starts with the defensive line, and Mizzou looks to be in very good shape there for this season and beyond.

— Turnovers make it a rout. When keeping the Tigers’ offense in good field position didn’t turn out to be enough, Missouri’s defense took matters into its own hands.

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A week ago, it was Georgia that forced five turnovers in its 34-0 rout in Columbia. 

This time, the Tigers broke a streak of three straight games without a turnover, forcing six against Florida’s lackluster offense.

The first fumble recovery set up the offense’s only touchdown, and Golden’s score in the third quarter finally got points for a defense that had its streak of 47 straight games with a turnover snapped this season. Senior Darvin Ruise returned an interception 46 yards for a touchdown, and senior safety Braylon Webb also netted two interceptions as Missouri forced six turnovers to keep control of an ugly offensive game.

— Mauk, offense still stuck in neutral. Maty Mauk promised to play better after throwing a career-high four interceptions last week against Georgia.

Whether he accomplished that goal at Florida depends on the value of winning and taking care of the ball. Certainly, Mauk didn’t come close to his best game in another ugly day for the Missouri passing game.

He finished just 6 for 18 for a season-low 20 yards, with only one completion for a single yard after halftime. An awful throw off his back foot resulted in an interception on a screen pass near midfield in the first quarter, when Missouri led only 7-0.

Mauk still made a few nice plays with his feet, notably a 19-yard scramble on third-and-17 for Missouri’s first third-down conversion in its last 21 tries, dating to the second quarter of a 21-20 win over South Carolina. He also completed an eight-yard pass to Darius White on third-and-4 during an 18-play, eight-and-a-half minute field-goal drive in the first half.

That would be the only time the entire game the Tigers’ offense had a drive longer than 25 yards, and an inability to throw the ball played a huge factor. Mauk looked out of sorts, especially on several fade routes, and he’ll certainly need to be better going forward for Mizzou to find more success.


— Road warriors. Missouri might want to ask its fans to dress in the opposing team’s colors for the next two weeks at Faurot Field.

The Tigers followed a dreadful performance against Georgia in front of the largest home crowd since 1983 with a dominant win in one of the SEC’s most reputable venues. Sure, The Swamp and the Gators aren’t what they once were, but Missouri’s success on the road continues to defy logic.

No other SEC East team can even claim to be undefeated on the road this season, and the Tigers haven’t lost on an opponent’s field since a 59-29 loss at Texas A&M to end the 2012 season. Since then, Missouri’s road wins have included No. 7 Georgia and No. 24 Ole Miss last year, as well as No. 13 South Carolina in September.

Meanwhile, all three of Mizzou’s regular-season losses have come at home, beginning with the crushing 27-24 defeat from South Carolina in two overtimes last season. Indiana provided one of the most embarrassing home losses of the Pinkel era less than a month ago.

Perhaps it’s just experience from upperclassmen that has made the difference, or maybe the coaching staff deserves credit for instilling the right mindset. Either way, the fact that arguably Mizzou’s two toughest remaining games are on the road at Texas A&M and Tennessee in November may not be such a bad thing after all.

You can follow Luke Thompson on Twitter @FS_LukeT or email him at lukegthompson87@gmail.com.