Tigers run to Citrus Bowl victory behind Murphy, Hansbrough

Mizzou's Russell Hansbrough went over the 1,000 yard mark for the season with his 114 yards on 15 carries against Minnesota. 

David Manning/David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

The continued progression of Missouri’s running game reached its peak at just the right time.

Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy carried the Tigers to a 33-17 Citrus Bowl win over Minnesota with more than 100 yards each, highlighted by Hansbrough’s 78-yard touchdown run. Quarterback Maty Mauk added 38 rushing yards of his own, including an 18-yard touchdown to beat the Golden Gophers at their own game.

A slow start eventually turned into a huge second half for Mizzou, who rushed for 204 of its 337 yards after halftime. The offensive line created some solid holes for two tailbacks eager to show off their speed and power against a defense that gave up 161.2 rush yards per game during the regular season.

By the fourth quarter, Hansbrough and Murphy looked virtually unstoppable as they broke tackles in the backfield before outrunning linebackers and defensive backs in the secondary. Murphy may not have scored, but he broke out for a 69-yard run and also had a punt return touchdown called back by a pair of penalties against Mizzou.

The big day capped off an impressive season for the Tigers’ tailbacks, who knew they’d have to shoulder more of the load after Henry Josey left early for the 2014 NFL draft. But a lingering injury to Morgan Steward and major struggles for Missouri’s passing game meant for more carries for Hansbrough and Murphy than either could have expected.

Hansbrough wound up breaking 1,000 yards and 200 carries in the Citrus Bowl with 114 yards on 15 carries, and Murphy wasn’t far behind after an even better day. The versatile, 5-foot-9 senior crushed his career-high with 157 yards to reach 924 for the season on 177 carries while becoming the second player in Mizzou history to surpass 5,000 all-purpose yards in a career.

They’ve shown tremendous growth since September, when it wasn’t clear if they had the durability or strength to provide a consistent threat out of the backfield. Both improved greatly in their ability to power up the middle for tough yards, and no one ever questioned whether they could make big plays in the open field.

In the end, Hansbrough and Murphy proved to be the perfect fit for an offense designed to spread out and wear down its opponents.

FIRST DOWN: Special teams paves the way

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Three outstanding special teams plays gave Mizzou momentum when it needed it most after some early offensive struggles.

Gary Pinkel’s risk-taking paid off in a big way, beginning with a fake punt when the Tigers were trailing 7-0 and struggling to move the ball early in the second quarter. 290-pound defensive tackle Harold Brantley didn’t just take the direct snap and pick up the three yards he needed, he rumbled around and through Minnesota defenders for 19 yards.

That didn’t lead directly to points, but it set up a perfect 37-yard punt by Christian Brinser downed by Mizzou at the Golden Gophers’ two-yard line. A three-and-out gave the Tigers the ball back on Minnesota’s side of midfield, and 45 yards later Mizzou’s offense had some confidence and three points on the scoreboard.

Instead of trying to protect a 10-7 lead, Pinkel took another risk and the Tigers perfectly executed an onside kick to set up another short field goal drive. Even though another fake field goal attempt later in the game failed, Missouri’s aggressiveness appeared to give it a critical boost on the way to a come-from-behind victory.

SECOND DOWN: Seniors show out

Murphy wasn’t the only senior to go out on a high note for Mizzou.

As usual, defensive end Markus Golden led the charge with eight tackles, including two and a half for losses to earn Citrus Bowl MVP honors. The clear leader of the Tigers’ defense all season long combined with Shane Ray for a sack and forced a fumble on Minnesota’s first possession to set the tone for a busy day.

On the other side of the ball, Bud Sasser cemented his case for one of the best single seasons for a wide receiver in Mizzou history with seven catches for 68 yards and two touchdowns. His 7-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter sealed the game and pushed him over 1,000 yards for the season.

He may not have gotten as much attention, but left tackle Mitch Morse showed his strength again on the offensive line, which has faced more than its share of adversity this season. The senior has been its most consistent piece, and he fared well against a solid Minnesota defensive line.

THIRD DOWN: Mauk still seeking consistency

Sophomore quarterback Maty Mauk still has a lot to learn, but his struggles will never come from a lack of effort or ability.

Two interceptions on his first two drives showed the worst of his lack of awareness, and Minnesota could have easily gotten more on far too many deep balls thrown into heavy coverage. Mauk also made some questionable decisions on when to scramble or throw the ball away, often creating much tougher plays than necessary.

But before completely blaming Mauk for his 97 yards on 12-for-19 passing, or his SEC-worst 13 interceptions for the season, it’s worth considering the lack of help from some teammates. Second-leading receiver Jimmie Hunt missed the Citrus Bowl with an injury, and his replacements again struggled to gain any kind of separation.

The underclassmen caught just 12 passes all year and also had several drops, so it’s understandable why Mauk struggled so much when any of his three seniors receivers were injured. He took a hard hit to the head in the second half, and also appeared to suffer a lower leg injury that probably should have knocked him out of the game, especially when he began vomiting on the sideline.

Nonetheless, Mauk made some huge plays down the stretch, most notably on a physical 18-yard touchdown run to put Mizzou ahead for good in the third quarter. Other than a botched two-point conversion, he didn’t commit a turnover in the final three quarters and rarely shied away from contact, surely earning plenty of respect from his teammates.

FOURTH DOWN: Tigers make history

Missouri’s doubters keep running out of fuel.

The Tigers earned their 23rd win in two seasons on Thursday, making them the winningest team in school history over a two-year stretch. Missouri also won its third straight bowl game with its first win over a ranked opponent this season.

Pinkel’s team certainly had its flaws, but the leadership from coaches and players made it special once again. A 10-2 record after October in the past two seasons speaks to the mental fortitude of this team, and it’s not hard to imagine Missouri being a force in the SEC for several years to come.

While the heavily lauded SEC West has gone just 2-5 this bowl season, with only its worst two teams winning, the SEC East has quietly won all three of its matchups. Maybe those back-to-back division titles for Missouri are worth more than most people think.

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