Dawson Downing is a firm believer that hard work gets rewarded.

That perseverance paid off against Mississippi on Saturday night as the Missouri junior running back scored his first career touchdown on a 54-yard run with just over five minutes left in the third quarter to put the Tigers up 21 points.

Downing finished the game with six carries for 70 yards to lead Missouri past Ole Miss 38-27.

Missouri improves to 5-1 overall and 2-0 in the Southeastern Conference.

At first it was inconclusive whether Downing cleared the goal line with an inspired dive on his touchdown. In the midst of celebration on the Missouri sideline, officials reviewed the play.

Downing admitted after the game he never even realized it was under review.

“They were hitting my helmet on the sidelines,” Downing said of his teammates. “I knew I was in, so I was just happy when they signaled it again. It means a lot, though. It's just a culmination of all the hard work I have put in, but I couldn't do it without the big guys in front of me leading the way.”

Missouri head coach Barry Odom said he is not surprised by Downing’s success.

“We looked at the work he has done and he has earned playing time, not just mop-up duty, but he's earned time in the game,” Odom said. “Every week he continues to get a little bit better. What a great run tonight by him and a good job up front at the point of attack blocking. He broke a tackle and then the extra effort and mental toughness to get the ball in the end zone.

“I know his dad, who is a former player here — it's a pretty special moment for both of those guys. Dawson is one of the reasons why the program is moving in the right direction."

Downing's father, Ken Downing, played at Missouri from 1973 to 1975.

Larry Rountree, Missouri's leading rusher, said when Downing scored, he jumped to about a 45-inch vertical. Rountree finished with 21 carries for 127 yards and two touchdowns.

“I jumped up so high,” Rountree said. “I was so happy. The extra effort, man, sticking his arm out and getting in the end zone, it was beautiful. It was a beautiful run. When he scored, everybody just went crazy. Every time he gets the ball he at least averages five or six yards a carry, so it’s not a surprise.”

Fellow running back Tyler Badie said Downing deserves the success 100%. Badie carried the ball five times for 24 yards against Ole Miss and also hauled in three catches for 69 yards and a score.

“I'm always very proud of him,” Badie said of Downing. “But during the run, I went crazy because I didn't expect Dawson to run that fast, so it was just exciting for everybody. Like (running backs) coach (Cornell) Ford says, it's always a good day when every running back eats. Every day, day in, day out, regardless of what coach Ford asks us, he does it.

"(Downing) is just a great role model for our whole running back group."

After earning a scholarship last fall, Downing went from walk-on to contributing both on special teams and as the third-down back for the Tigers.

Downing said he thinks it’s every walk-on's vision to earn a scholarship and make it onto the field.

“That's always been my vision and my dream, so you just have to keep working until you get there,” Downing said. "My career has been like a roller coaster. There are a lot of ups and downs, and you have to keep a level head and be able to deal with a lot of things. You can’t do that without your teammates and a lot of support from family, too.”

Downing graduated from Bishop Meige in Mission, Kansas, but wanted to follow his dad’s footsteps to Missouri to play for the Tigers. Downing did not see game action in 2016 but quickly asserted himself on the field in 2017.

He played in five games that season and ran for 121 yards on 20 carries for an average of 6.1 yards per carry. His breakout performance two seasons ago came on the road against Connecticut, when he carried the ball 10 times for 60 yards.

In 2018, Downing became a valuable member of special teams unit and saw action in all 13 games.

As Downing proved Saturday night against the Rebels, he needs the Tigers just as much as Missouri needs him for the 2019 season.

"It means they have trust in me. They could have thrown any of the backs out there at that point because we have a lot of good backs back there, and I trust all of them," Downing said.

cbowie@columbiatribune.com