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How and why the Missouri offense misses Russell Hansbrough so much

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Derrick Forsythe / Rock M Nation

There's a point during one of Missouri's pre-game hype videos where fans are treated to a snippet of Al Pacino's "inch-by-inch" speech from Any Given Sunday.

In said speech, Pacino's character, a football coach, talks about the importance of fighting for every inch on the football field and in life. (But we're not talking about life, so forget that part.) Toward the end of the monologue, he says, "We claw with our finger nails for that inch. Cause we know when we add up all those inches that's going to make the [naughty word] difference between winning and losing."

I found myself thinking about that line as Anthony Sherrills snagged a pass out of the air and secured Missouri's 9-6 victory over the Connecticut Huskies on Saturday. When Pacino talks, I get the mental picture of an ugly football game, one that's more about getting the job done than looking good doing it. And if anything personifies that line, it's this Missouri football team. They don't look good all the time, and sometimes they look downright bad. But they get the job done. And that's what counts, right? RIGHT?

Anyway, Missouri's offense struggled mightily Saturday, and I had the pleasure of being the optimist in the stands, telling myself countless times, "Don't worry, they'll score on the next drive." It only worked once, but along with Clarence Green's blocked punt/safety, that was enough to get the job done.

So as I launch into a review of the running backs and wide receivers from Saturday's victory, I'd like to add this:

Dear Special Teams and Defense,

Thank you for all the times you score points. Please do it more.

Love, Josh.

Running Backs

Ish Witter

Look, I don't think there's anyone who has anything bad to say about Ish Witter at this point. He is what he is: a change-of-pace back behind Russell Hansbrough. And with Hansbrough sidelined with a lingering ankle injury, Witter continued his leading-back duties to the tune of 54 yards rushing on 17 carries for a YPC of 3.2.

Not ideal.

Perhaps the main knock on Witter's play so far has been his inability to break tackles. And while those concerns weren't exactly assuaged (re: getting stuffed on the goal line), he did have a few runs that flashed the speed and open field skills that could be problematic for opposing defenses. He also caught a few passes out of the backfield, including one very timely reception during the offense's only scoring drive of the day. With Mauk scrambling to avoid some husky Huskies, Witter found a hole in the middle of the field, where Maty was able to slip him the ball. Overall, Witter didn't have a bad day, but giving him near 20 carries a game is a scary thought going into SEC play.

Tyler Hunt

Hunt had the highlight of the day with his spinning destruction of UConn linebacker Graham Stewart. When the big dog is running, you get out of the way. Otherwise, Hunt only had one carry for 2 yards. Other than the occasional pass, Hunt doesn't seem to be a go-to option for Josh Henson

Chase Abbington

Mr. Abbington, the subject of many "I don't see him on the depth chart?" questions on Twitter, was actually the first back off the bench when Witter needed a breather on the first drive.

He promptly dropped the first pass thrown to him.

The coaches seemed to trust Abbington enough to make him the second option behind Witter, even if the depth chart last week didn't reflect that. And he did crank out one 12-yard run that featured a few broken tackles. But Abbington, for whatever reason, still seems to be a step or two behind the Division 1 game at this point.

Morgan Steward

Two carries; 6 yards, and at least one fan who's still not convinced he's completely healthy.

Conclusion:

It's been beaten to death, but this team needs Russell Hansbrough back in the worst way. Not only is he the team's best option out of the backfield, but he makes his fellow backs much more valuable. Witter and Abbington seem to be the go-to options when he's not in. And unless those two makes big strides very quickly, the offense is going to struggle mightily as it continues to face tougher defenses.

Wide Receivers

J'Mon Moore

Moore had by far the most catches on the day, totaling six for 39 yards. But instead of testing the UConn cornerbacks, Moore was mostly relegated to quick screens on the outside. He didn't look bad; he made the best of the space he was given. But there's only so much he could do with the plays designed for him. The coaches were clearly hoping he could break a few plays open with his speed, which never happened.

Nate Brown

To this point, Brown had been the steady hand among the receivers. But it's safe to say he took a step back against Connecticut. After averaging near 60 yards per game the first two weeks, Brown only totaled two catches for 10 yards on Saturday. And it didn't look as if the quarterbacks were looking his way a whole lot.

This was a little confusing to me. It looked as if the offense was trying to neutralize Connecticut's defensive line with lots of quick outs and screen passes, but Brown didn't factor into plan. Then again, Brown didn't do himself any favors last week with some bad drops against Arkansas State. Maybe he lost some trust with Maty Mauk, and maybe he just had a tough time getting open; probably a little bit of both.

Sean Culkin

Culkin only had three catches for 22 yards, but he continues to impress me. He gets open consistently and makes timely catches on a regular basis. Is that a low bar to have for a receiver? Maybe, but at this point I trust him more than any other pass-catcher in this offense. Over the next few weeks, there needs to be a concerted effort to get Culkin the ball more often.

Wesley Leftwich

Leftwich was quiet for most of the day: he only totaled two catches for 12 yards. But Leftwich could have had a bigger day. He was targeted at least three times on deep routes where he was just overthrown. Out of all the receivers, he seemed to be the only one getting open downfield with any consistency. If Mauk or Lock could have connected with him at least one time, I would have had an easier time breathing during the last few minutes.

The Rest

Ray Wingo, Eric Laurent and Emanuel Hall all caught one pass each for 13, four and three yards respectively.

Conclusion:

The inexperienced receiving corps was short-handed after the scary car accident Friday that sidelined DeSean Blair and Keyon Dilosa. Still, it's almost never a good thing when two of your running backs are two of your three leading receivers. With the offensive line struggling, Henson seemed to want to get the ball out quickly and let the receivers make plays. As evidenced by the nine points on the scoreboard, it didn't work quite the way he would have hoped.

If I take anything away from this game, it's this: I find it telling that Missouri took very few deep shots against a Connecticut secondary that wasn't exactly considered the strength of its defense. If anything, I expected Mauk to air it out a few times and let Moore and Leftwich work against some younger corners. That might not have been possible with UConn's soft coverage and Mauk having to scramble for his life a few times. But even from the outset, that didn't seem to be the plan.

There seems to be a lack of trust in the receivers. Whether that's Henson, Mauk or both, the offense is going to be completely impotent if it can't count on its receivers while the running game struggles.

All that being said, nine points was enough to get the job done this week. On to Lexington! Now, if you don't mind me, I'll be on my knees praying to the old gods and the new that Hansbrough's ankle has officially healed.