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November 2, 2013
A win up front
The stats tell the story of Missouri's return to form, of finding its way after losing it in the second half against South Carolina.
The stats tell that No. 9-Missouri (8-1, 4-1 SEC) routed Tennessee (4-5, 1-4) 31-3. The stats tell that the Tigers outgained the Volunteers in total yardage, 502 to 334. The stats tell that Missouri's rushing offense outgained the entire Tennessee offense, 339-334, on 12 fewer plays.
But, on a meaningless play in a game that was already decided, Missouri showed its mettle. On third-and-five from its own six yard line, Maty Mauk spun left out of pressure by Tennessee linebacker Curt Maggitt. Mauk was free out of the endzone, but left tackle Justin Britt curled back and pancaked Maggit, sending the 6-foot-3, 239-pound defender onto his back.
Mauk scrambled out of bounds for one yard. Missouri punted. But that play was a microcosm of the Tigers' game:
A rebound effort that began and ended at the line of scrimmage.
The Tigers ran for those 339 yards on 54 carries, including 114 from Mauk. Missouri's top three running backs -- Henry Josey, Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy -- combined for 179 yards on 31 carries.
Mauk, for all his adventures outside of the pocket, wasn't sacked.
The Tigers ran for just one touchdown, a 26-yard rush up the middle by Hansbrough in the third quarter, the final points of the day. But there's no mistaking the John Hancock on this win.
It's the bloody face of Max Copeland in post-game interviews. It's Britt's back-breaking block on Maggit. It's Evan Boehm, Connor McGovern and Mitch Morse opening up holes for Mauk and a stable of running backs to control the yardage, control the clock and control the game.
"That's what we get paid to do, is to move people," Copeland said. "When we don't do that well, we want to make sure we redeem ourselves.
"Today was a little bit about redemption, but it was also about putting the past behind us."
Three weeks ago, Missouri was the conference's leader in rushing yards. While the rushing well hasn't run dry, it's been more sporadic, less consistent. Against Georgia and South Carolina, Missouri didn't break 160 yards on the ground and didn't break a four yard average-per-carry. So Saturday became about re-establishing that identity, and it paid off.
Last Sunday, after their first practice following a loss in nearly a year, Missouri's offensive linemen came together as a group. The message was simple.
"We definitely took it personal, " Boehm said. "As a starting five, we create the holes, we make those blocks. That's our job, it's what we do. When we don't do it against South Carolina, it tears us up.
"We said on Sunday night, 'Hey, we didn't run the ball like we want to run the ball.' We put that on us. And this week, in practice ... we put it on ourselves to finish the block, to create those holes. We had really good practices this week, and I think it proved out on the field."
Mauk's legs and his timely, if erratic, arm put the flourish on the game. He threw for three touchdowns and no interceptions, the first time in his three starts in which he didn't turn the ball over. But it was Missouri's offensive line, and a group of running backs, that controlled the game for the Tigers and ultimately led to a rebound win.
GAINES RETURNS: E.J. Gaines returned to the field after missing the last two games with a quadriceps injury that occurred in the first half against Georgia. He tied for the team lead with six tackles, five solo, one for loss and an interception that he returned for 15 yards.
His interception came in the second quarter after Kony Ealy hit Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs' arm, causing the throw to flutter. Gaines returned the interception to the Volunteers' 26-yard line, and Missouri scored on the next play on a pass from Mauk to L'Damian Washington.
FRANKLIN'S STATUS: After the game, Gary Pinkel said that James Franklin was ready to come into the game if Missouri needed him to finish the game, but they wouldn't have turned to him for any extended period of time.
However, Pinkel said that Franklin's status for next week looks more promising.
"We think it's very possible he'll be ready for next week," Pinkel said.
INJURY UPDATE: Henry Josey played after passing concussion tests this week. After the game, Pinkel said that defensive tackle Marvin Foster may have torn a triceps tendon, but the team won't be able to confirm it until further testing.