Four Downs: Missouri sticks to strengths in Citrus Bowl win over Minnesota

The Missouri Tigers posted their second straight season of 11 or more wins with a Citrus Bowl win on Thursday.

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The 16th-ranked Missouri Tigers erased a third-quarter deficit to beat the Minnesota Golden Gophers 33-17 in the Florida Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day. Here are four observations from the game:

Missouri put up its second straight season with 11 or more wins by doing what it does best: run the ball and defend. It was an ugly win, but this was not necessarily a team that dealt in aesthetics in 2014.

In a 16-point win against a solid, 25th-ranked Minnesota team, one that mirrors many of the qualities of this particular Missouri team, Missouri rushed for 337 yards and forced three turnovers. Running backs Marcus Murphy and Russell Hansbrough were the stars of the show for a one-dimensional offense — both players went over 100 yards — and the defense held Minnesota’s standout running back David Cobb to 81 yards and the offense overall to 5.6 yards per play.

This is nothing new for Missouri.

The Tigers boasted a top-25 scoring defense and, when things were going well, an effective running game. That rushing attack rarely failed them (Georgia, Alabama), but it remains the blueprint for coach Gary Pinkel’s program.

During his freshman year at Missouri, Maty Mauk made his case for being James Franklin’s heir apparent when he was forced into the starting role for a four-game stretch, tossing 10 touchdowns and two interceptions against Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky to keep the Tigers’ SEC East title hopes alive. As a result, expectations were high for Mauk, a consensus four-star prospect out of high school, coming into the 2014 season. And while divisional results were the same — the Tigers repeated as SEC East champs — quarterback play was spotty in Columbia.

Mauk completed a little more than 50 percent of his passes this season, putting up 2,658 yards, 25 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.

Those aren’t terrible numbers, but Mauk wasn’t at his best in many of Missouri’s biggest games and the bowl game was no different.

Mauk struggled mightily versus South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, averaging just 83 yards per game to go with zero touchdowns and five picks, and Minnesota’s defense gave him similar problems. Though the sophomore got going a little bit with two second-half touchdowns, he still finished with just 97 yards passing, two touchdowns and two interceptions. He also added 38 yards and a score on the ground, but for the most part Minnesota held him in check.

With a non-conference loss to Indiana and a blowout loss at the hands of Georgia, Missouri was the surprise champion of a down SEC East, but the Tigers will likely need more out of the passing game if they are going to make it three straight division titles.

If junior Shane Ray jumps for the NFL Draft — as the projected early-round pick is expected to do — Missouri is going to have a difficult time replacing one of the best pass rushes in the country.

Pinkel’s defense logged 40 sacks during the regular season, tied for the eighth-best mark nationally. That was spearheaded by Ray and, especially on Thursday against a Minnesota offensive line that does not give up much pressure, senior Markus Golden. It was Golden that logged two sacks against Golden Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner, giving him 10.5 sacks for the season.

Mizzou found plenty of ways to replace the production of ’13 SEC Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam. It’ll be impressive if the Tigers can do it again in 2015.

The Golden Gophers did not exactly rely on big plays to move the meter on offense this season. Among 128 FBS teams, the Golden Gophers ranked 74th nationally in yards per play (5.43). Explosive plays were rare, and more often than not they came from Cobb and the running game.

All the same, Minnesota provided one of the New Year’s Day highlights with a long pass play to tight end Maxx Williams, a 54-yard catch and run from the 6-foot-4 sophomore that featured not one but two hurdles for the score:

At the time of the play, it looked like a potential turning point for the Williams & Co. With 12 minutes remaining in the third quarter, it put the Golden Gophers back ahead in what looked like a low-scoring affair. The bad news? Mizzou went on a 20-3 run to close out the game.