Stunner in the Swamp: Looking back at Mizzou's 2014 win over Florida
As Missouri prepared to travel to Florida, Markus Golden and Shane Ray had their sack celebration ready to go. The defensive end duo was enjoying a highly productive season in 2014, so it was a safe bet at least one of them would have the camera on him after a big play in Missouri’s Week 7 matchup. The plan was for Golden to hold his arms straight and clap his hands vertically, imitating Florida’s gator chomp. Ray would then come over and clamp the “jaws” shut.
But even Golden and Ray couldn’t have anticipated that, when they finally got to show off their choreography, it would be in the end zone — with Missouri leading by five touchdowns. Midway through the third quarter, Ray blew past Florida’s right tackle and knocked the ball out of the grasp of Gator quarterback Jeff Driskel. Golden scooped it up and ran 21 yards to the end zone, where Ray joined him to celebrate.
The play marked one of four non-offensive touchdowns scored by Missouri in a game that remains a statistical enigma. Missouri led Florida 42-0 and ultimately won 42-13 despite passing for 20 yards. The Tiger offense as a whole totaled just 119 yards and found the end zone once. Both of those yardage totals represent the lowest marks by a Missouri team in a game since at least 2000, win or lose.
As Missouri prepares to travel to Florida again on Saturday, we take a look back at the game through the eyes of some of the players and coaches who participated.
Missouri’s players, and particularly its defense, entered the week of the Florida game confident and motivated. Several players said any time the team played Florida, there was a little bit extra juice in the locker room, with the Gators representing a past SEC power who was always assumed to be superior to Missouri. Plus, coming off a home loss to Georgia, there was an added sense of urgency. The team knew that another loss would likely eliminate any hope of returning to the SEC Championship game.
Then-defensive coordinator Dave Steckel was more anxious. It hadn’t been the prettiest past three games for Missouri. The Tigers had gotten upset by two-touchdown underdog Indiana in the fourth game of the season, giving up 241 rushing yards in the process. Missouri sleep-walked through three quarters at South Carolina the following week before rallying to win late, then finally got blown out by Georgia when starting quarterback Maty Mauk threw four interceptions. The offense mustered just 147 yards in the 34-0 beatdown.
As a result, Missouri traveled to Florida’s Homecoming game as a 6.5-point underdog. Of most concern to Steckel was the fact that, after recording a turnover in 47 consecutive games, Missouri hadn’t taken the ball away from its opponent in any of the past three games.
Steckel’s solution: He had the graduate assistants print out business cards. On the front, they read “Missouri at Florida, Oct. 18, 2014.” On the back: “Takeaways = Victory.”
“I made the players and the defensive coaches carry it with them wherever they went,” Steckel said. “And if we’d check you, you better have it on you, unless you were on the practice field, obviously. And we made them just carry the business card in their pocket just as a subliminal effect that we’d have to get takeaways.”
The business cards worked — but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Because before the Missouri defense (or offense, for that matter) had a chance to take the field, the Tigers already built a lead.
On the game’s opening kickoff, Florida’s Francisco Velez booted the ball high and short of the end zone. Missouri senior return man Marcus Murphy fielded it at his own four-yard line, right in the middle of the field. (Florida head coach Will Muschamp said after the game the kick was supposed to be kicked to the left sideline.) Murphy immediately found a seam, and from there, just one blocker and one Florida player stood in his path. Tyler Hunt blocked the Florida player left, Murphy cut right and strode untouched into the end zone.
Eleven seconds into the game, Missouri had already accomplished two things it hadn’t the week prior: scored a touchdown and taken a lead.
“That was a good statement to open the game up like that,” Murphy said. “I just wanted to come out and make a play. Any opportunity I get, I think I can take it to the house, and guys helped me out, they set up some blocks and we were able to do that.”
In one sense, Murphy actually scored too quickly. He later found out his parents didn’t get to see the touchdown. They weren’t able to attend the game in person, and the television broadcast aired the end of an earlier game before flipping to Missouri’s, so his parents found out through other people that Murphy had scored before they got to see it themselves.
Inside the Swamp, however, the play gave the Missouri sideline a jolt of energy.
“Once Murphy did that, I can remember the energy being up real high, everybody being excited and everybody being even more ready to go after that one,” Golden said. “That was a great way to start the game.”
A good start only got better. It took just six plays for the unit to get off the takeaway schneid, with a little help from Florida. Driskel fumbled a snap and Missouri recovered at midfield. But when the offense took the field, it couldn’t take advantage of the field position. Mauk continued his struggles from the week prior. On Missouri’s third play, he was intercepted by Marcus Maye, the fifth pick in his last 23 pass attempts. Even after the defense got the ball back once again by forcing a turnover on downs, Missouri’s offense looked out of sync. After three straight runs gained eight yards, the Tigers punted the ball back to the Gators.
Florida swapped out Driskel for freshman quarterback Treon Harris. That didn’t improve the Gators’ results. Steckel said Missouri didn’t bring much extra pressure during the game; he was confident in Golden, Ray and the rest of the front four being able to get to the quarterback on their own, so he dropped the rest of the defense to cover and be able to rally for a tackle if Driskel or Harris tried to scramble. But on third and 10, Steckel dialed up a blitz. Linebacker Kentrell Brothers looped untouched through a hole in the line of scrimmage and blasted Harris, dislodging the ball. Fellow linebacker Michael Scherer fell on it at the Florida 19-yard line.
This time, the Missouri offense took advantage. Murphy accounted for all 19 yards on three carries, finishing the drive with his second touchdown of the day.
That was pretty much all the production Missouri would get from its offense. But it wouldn’t matter, because the defense wasn’t near done wreaking havoc. Later in the first half, with Driskel back in the game, sophomore defensive tackle Harold Brantley got enough push up the middle to hit Driskel’s arm as he attempted to throw deep. The ball fluttered high into the air, resulting in an easy interception for safety Braylon Webb, his first of two picks in the game. Webb returned the ball inside the Florida five-yard line. The offense actually lost 11 yards on its next three plays, but still got a field goal from Andrew Baggett to extend its lead to 20-0 entering halftime.
Like any coach, Steckel said he didn’t feel comfortable with the halftime lead. He remembers head coach Gary Pinkel delivering a typical halftime message about treating the score like it was 0-0 and “pedaling downhill” toward the finish line.
Murphy apparently took the message to heart, or at least the part about starting the second half like it was the start of the game. Florida got the ball first and went three-and-out. The Gators brought the punting unit onto the field on fourth down and one, but, concerned that they fake the kick, the Tigers countered with their safe punt return unit. Essentially, the entire defense stayed on the field, but Murphy replaced one safety and retreated deep in case of a punt. Not surprisingly, that formation isn’t ideally suited to a big return. Murphy said he took the field expecting to call for a fair catch.
But as the ball arrived, Murphy spied some green grass. He caught the punt and immediately side-stepped one would-be tackler, then found himself staring at five Florida players with no blockers around. Somehow, Murphy ran right through the middle of them, breaking two arm-tackles in the process, then cut toward the sideline and turned on the jets. At that point, only one player had a shot at bringing him down, but Golden appeared seemingly out of nowhere, dove and drove the Florida player into the turf. Linebacker Darvin Ruise said that block has always stuck in his memory.
“That shows you the unselfishness that we had on that team,” Ruise said, “and the willingness to lay out and the togetherness.”
Because of the unlikelihood of that particular return, Murphy said it was his favorite touchdown of his college career. It also made him the first Missouri player ever to score on a punt and kickoff return in the same game.
“I think the returns helped me out a lot going into the (NFL) Draft, having two returns in a big setting like that, in a big environment,” Murphy said. “That was my favorite punt return of my college career, just being able to take a punt back with the defense on the field.”
After the score, Missouri went for two to extend its lead to 28-0. At that point, there was pretty much no way Florida’s hapless offense could have erased the deficit, but the Tiger defense kept pouring it on. Two possessions later, Ray knocked the ball away from Driskel. Golden, who might have gotten the sack had Ray not beat him to it, got a nice consolation prize in the form of the football. He broke a tackle attempt from Florida’s left tackle and headed for the end zone. Steckel remembers thinking “Markus, stop looking back, just run, dude,” but the only player possibly close enough to catch him was Ray. Golden says his enduring memory from the game is celebrating with Ray in the end zone as teammates arrived to congratulate them.
“Once I saw the ball, I was like, ‘yeah, I’m going to take this all the way back,’” Golden said. “I knew I was going to have to beat the guy that was blocking me, he was pretty close on me, so I felt like I was going to have to get him off of me when I picked the ball up, and I felt like that’s exactly what I did.”
The exclamation point came three plays later. Driskel tried to force a pass through double coverage, and Ruise caught it instead, prompting ESPN play-by-play commentator Joe Tessitore to say “you gotta be kidding me” on the broadcast. Only Driskel stood between Ruise and the endzone, and Ruise easily sidestepped him and scored. Teammates mobbed him, both in the end zone and once he returned to the sideline.
Not only did the pick-six give Missouri a 42-0 lead — Golden identified that as the moment he knew the game was over — it served as the game’s feel-good moment. Ruise, mostly a backup during his career, had just one interception to that point and had never scored a touchdown. Even cooler, he grew up in the Jacksonville area and had about 40 friends and family members in attendance for the game. He still has an image of the play as the cover photo for his Twitter account.
“That was pretty cool in a sense of, you know, my grandfather was there, my mom, my dad,” Ruise said. “It was pretty cool in the sense of you get to see these people that have pushed and prepared you to get where you are in life. You get to come back home and see your family and friends and they get to actually see you make a decent play, and it’s kind of like, hey, this is what we did this for, this is why we took him to little league practice and why he played football and he left and all that good stuff.”
Florida would go on to score two late touchdowns, but by that point, the game was well out of reach. The final numbers for Missouri’s defense: six sacks, six turnovers (three fumbles and three interceptions) and two touchdowns. Takeaways, indeed, equaled victory.
Yet what made the contest truly unique was the fact that, despite Missouri’s defensive dominance, Florida’s offense more than doubled Missouri’s production, at least on paper. The Gators out-gained the Tigers in total offense 283-119. They had 17 first downs to Missouri’s seven. They held the ball for eight more minutes and ran 30 more plays. In the past 20 seasons, only once has Missouri had a lower average yard per play than its 2.43 that night: in a 42-10 loss to No. 1 Alabama in 2012.
From Golden to Murphy to Steckel to Muschamp, everyone agreed that they’ve never been a part of another football game in which the winning team had so little offensive output, yet won by so much. But even though it served as an extreme example, several players said that was characteristic of Missouri in 2014. The Tigers didn’t quite have the same talent as the year prior, when they finished ranked No. 5 in the AP Poll, but generally, whenever one unit struggled, the other picked up the slack. Steckel fondly referred to the team as a group of “misfit toys.”
“They just all blended together, and all the parts that they were missing, someone else had the other part,” he said, “and they functioned great as a unit, and I loved them.”
In typical coach fashion, Steckel said he didn’t let himself enjoy the victory for more than about an hour, although in hindsight, he wishes he would have savored it a bit longer. By the time the team boarded its flight home, his mind had turned to Missouri’s next opponent, Vanderbilt. But the win had lasting ramifications for Missouri’s season. The offense put the worst of its funk behind it, and the team reeled off six wins in a row to clinch an SEC East title for the second consecutive season, a feat it hasn’t accomplished since.
“I think that game was a huge momentum swing for us,” Ruise said. “Obviously we were very mentally tough as a team, but it doesn’t hurt to walk into a prestigious university such as Florida and a tough team like Florida was and go in there and ultimately handle business the way that we did. It gives you a jolt of confidence, it gives you a jolt of understanding, like, who you are as a team, and I think we rode that all the way to the SEC Championship.”