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Mizzou's best bounce back

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After Missouri’s 37-31 loss to Wyoming last Saturday, Barry Odom repeatedly referred to his team’s small margin of error. One translation is that this Missouri team needs its best players to play well. In the opening loss, Larry Rountree was nothing more than a frustrated observer as Mizzou’s comeback fell short. The SEC’s second-leading returning rusher had just one carry in the second half and put up just 44 all-purpose yards in Laramie, including 41 rushing yards.

On Saturday, Rountree had topped those numbers before the second quarter began. Though he was far from the only reason, Rountree was a big one Missouri bounced back from the season-opening loss to throttle West Virginia 38-7.

“He might be as strong of an energy force as we have,” Odom said. “The pulse of our team a lot of times will go with Larry. That’s in the locker room, that’s on the field, that’s practice habits, that’s your body language. Watching him finishing runs today, that’s what we needed.”

At media day this week, Rountree did not do interviews. His coached all explained quite bluntly that he was benched at Wyoming because Tyler Badie was playing better. While everyone who watched the game saw it, having it said publicly is another thing. Not that it was news to the Mizzou junior.

“I felt like I didn’t do enough,” Rountree said of last week. “You just try to not repeat the same mistakes. Just go out there and play and have fun. I was a little anxious out there, but this game, you know, it’s the home opener, why not go out there and have fun?”

Rountree had 99 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries and added two receptions for 16 yards.
Rountree had 99 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries and added two receptions for 16 yards. (Jordan Kodner)

Rountree had some discussions with running backs coach Cornell Ford during the weeek. But there was no light bulb moment, no enlightening advice that turned things around. Quite simply, Rountree returned to the guy he’d been for the first two years of his career.

“Larry was trying to press and do something that he was not,” Odom said. “I said the greatest thing that you can do, you were voted captain by your teammates because you’re Larry Rountree. Don’t do something that you’re not.”

“Sky’s the limit for us with Larry playing his A game,” offensive tackle Yasir Durant said. “He brung it this week. He looked like last season Larry. Last week he didn’t do his best, but as a team we kind of picked him up and told him it was all of us. We not just gonna put one man in the spotlight.

“We knew Larry was gonna bounce back. He’s hard on himself. That’s the type of guy that you need.”

“I saw a loose Larry. The normal Larry, the Larry we’re used to seeing,” wide receiver Barrett Banister added. “That’s not a knock on Larry, like he played bad last week, but I think he took ownership of he can play a better brand of football, and you saw it in his practice habits this week, you saw it in the way he carried himself this week, and Larry came out and performed.”

He finished the day against the Mountaineers a yard short of 100. He surpassed 2000 rushing yards for his career. He is just less than halfway to Brad Smith’s all-time school rushing record two games into his junior season and could find himself as high as No. 2 on the list by the end of the year. But for Rountree, he’s also taking on a larger responsibility as one of the players his teammates will line up to follow. He said he was shocked by being voted a captain, but can sense the eyes on him in the locker room.

“There’s a lot more eyes on me now,” Rountree said. “How my demeanor is when I come back to the sideline, whether it’s a good play or a bad play. I’ve just got to speak up more. I’ve got to be more of a voice to the team. That’s what coach Odom’s challenging me to do. I’m working on it. It’s not where it needs to be.”

Okwuegbunam hauls in a touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone, his first of two on the day.
Okwuegbunam hauls in a touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone, his first of two on the day. (Jordan Kodner)

Rountree wasn’t the only offensive star to bounce back on Saturday. Statistically, Albert Okwuegbunam was decent at Wyoming; actually better than he was on Saturday. He had 72 yards on three catches in the loss. But he missed a block that helped lead to a Kelly Bryant fumble the Cowboys returned for a touchdown. He dropped a pass that could easily have been called a fumble. He dropped another on Missouri’s second drive against West Virginia. But then he bounced back with two catches for 42 yards and found the end zone on both of them.

“Albert’s got to step up. We need that every week,” Odom said. “I just want one of them. They need to keep coming. He also had the drop early on, that’s a big play, we’ve got to come out with that. Albert is a great player. We’ve got to have great consistently.”

Okwuegbunam is now averaging a touchdown every 4.1 receptions in his Missouri career. The big plays make the highlight reels, but most feel there’s more to be mined in Mizzou’s walking mismatch.

“I love coach Odom because he expects greatness out of me. Anything less is unacceptable,” he said. “Really it’s just all about getting in the film room tomorrow morning. A lot of good things that happened on offense today, but also a lot of bad things that we can get corrected.”

On Saturday, Mizzou’s best players played like it. The result was one of Missouri’s most dominant performances against a Power Five team in recent memory. The challenge now, for the individuals and the team, is to repeat it.

“It felt good,” Rountree said. “Foot on the gas. No brakes.”