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West Virginia Mountaineers vs Missouri Tigers

Missouri running back Larry Rountree III, center, celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the second quarter against West Virginia on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in Columbia, Mo. (David Carson,

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri running backs coach Cornell Ford tells his players that if they don’t run the ball, they “might as well go home.” His backs know that early in the game they set the tone for the rest of the way.

Heading into Saturday’s home opener against West Virginia, a 38-7 victory for the Tigers, one of the biggest questions was whether the running game would improve after a disappointing showing at Wyoming a week earlier.

It sure did.

Mizzou left Laramie with just 114 rushing yards and had to rely on quarterback Kelly Bryant’s career-best passing performance to keep up with the Cowboys. As Ford’s proverb predicted, the lack of an effective running game was pivotal.

But by halftime against the Mountaineers, the Tigers already had surpassed last week’s rushing total (with 149 yards) and by the end of the game they had more than doubled it, racking up 232 yards on the ground.

Larry Rountree was coming off a subpar performance. He totaled 41 yards on 15 carries with a touchdown at Wyoming. After a fumble on the goal line at the end of the first half, he watched most of the second half from the sideline. For a player that Tigers coach Barry Odom described as the team’s “energy force,” Rountree’s performance and attitude was key to reviving the run game.

With 99 yards on 18 carries, Rountree’s Week 2 showing was much more in character.

“I felt like after the third run, I was in the groove,” he said. “At that point in time, when a running back gets in the groove, it’s the hot hand, the hot potato. You’re just in there, you can’t feel anything. You’re just running.”

Rountree found the end zone in the second quarter on a 10-yard run to put Mizzou up 17-0. The score capped a a 59-yard drive.

Fellow Mizzou running back Tyler Badie said he knew Rountree would return to his old ways before long. He said Rountree’s physical play and attitude don’t waver, even after a loss like the one in Week 1.

Odom agreed.

“Larry was trying to press and do something that he’s not,” Odom said of Rountree’s rough game at Wyoming. “I said the greatest thing you can do . . . you’ve been voted captain by your teammates because you are Larry Rountree. Don’t do something that you’re not.”

Redshirt junior Dawson Downing was the third running back in Mizzou’s rotation. He finished with 57 yards on 10 carries, more than he had in all of last season when he carried the ball just eight times.

Downing, a former walk-on, said he didn’t get any notice that he’d be part of the game plan, but he knew to be ready for any opportunity. He credited the other backs for putting him in a good position.

“Dawson’s been a dog. He’s just been in a cage,” Rountree said. “When he gets out there, Dawson’s going to go. Every play, he’s going to go hard. I was so happy to see him out there.”

The improved running game was aided by a more physical presence at the line of scrimmage. The offensive line showed improvement, and Rountree credited the men in the trenches with the success.

Odom said the blocking was better on all fronts.

“It’s so important for us to be able to run the ball offensively,” he said. “That’s usually blocking at the point of attack, but that’s not just the offensive line. That’s the runners running and the tight ends blocking and the receivers blocking on the perimeter.”

Center Trystan Colon-Castillo, who was disappointed last weekend after the offensive line gave up two sacks and struggled to produce a consistent running game, said the team’s demeanor was the biggest difference Saturday.

“We took it personally after last week and not being able to run the ball as well,” he said. “I think we started out really hot up front, playing hard, just trying to outplay our opponent. I definitely thought we were the tougher team today.”

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