COLUMBIA — Memorial Stadium was largely quiet, and a feeling of dread began to seep into the crowd’s consciousness.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
Missouri held a seven-point third-quarter lead over Kentucky in front of 67,853 fans on a brisk Saturday afternoon, so the Tigers had that going for them. That was about it. Two consecutive turnovers had given the Wildcats momentum, and a once-absurd question suddenly became legitimate: Could Missouri really lose to Southeastern Conference cellar-dweller Kentucky?
To anyone who has seen the Tigers lately, the answer appeared to be yes. So Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, a man who is resistant to sweeping change, did something he rarely does: He replaced his quarterback.
Out went Corbin Berkstresser, in came James Franklin. And Missouri scored 16 consecutive points in a 33-10 win, the Tigers’ first in the SEC.
Pinkel said after the game that he and offensive coordinator David Yost discussed in a Thursday staff meeting about turning to Franklin, who has been recovering from a MCL sprain in his left knee for the last three weeks.
“We knew he could play with great restriction,” Pinkel said. “He got the OK from the medical staff.”
But a determination was made: To protect Franklin from further injury, there would be fewer designed runs for him, play-action passes and slow-developing passing plays. He had done little running on the knee during the week; even Franklin said he was about 90 percent on Saturday.
“We didn’t put him in a position where he was going to have to scramble out,” Pinkel said. “He’s good at doing that, but is he ready?”
Maybe not to run. But to lead his team to victory? Yes.
“You’re in?” left tackle Elvis Fisher recalled asking Franklin once he came in the game. “Let’s put one in the end zone.”
While Franklin’s numbers on the day were modest — he completed six of nine passes for 16 yards but didn’t turn the ball over — there’s no doubt he provided a spark.
“They were all yelling and getting all excited and everything,” Franklin said of his teammates. “They were trying to get me going, and while they were trying to do that, they got themselves going.”
After Berkstresser, who completed 10 of 18 passes for 71 yards, opened the third quarter with two interceptions, Franklin ripped off a nine-play, 34-yard scoring drive that culminated in a 31-yard field goal by Andrew Baggett.
The drive, which put MU ahead 20-10 late in the third quarter, was powered entirely by running backs Kendial Lawrence and Russell Hansbrough, who as a pair accounted for 145 of MU’s 186 rushing yards on the day.
The defense did the rest. After Kentucky racked up 115 yards on its first two drives, MU held the Wildcats to 64 yards. The Tigers’ defense also forced three turnovers, including a sack and strip of quarterback Patrick Towles that set up sophomore running back Marcus Murphy’s 9-yard touchdown run, which put the Tigers up 26-10 early in the fourth quarter.
A 13-yard fumble return for a touchdown by cornerback E.J. Gaines later in the quarter sealed the Wildcats’ fate, as MU managed to hold on for a badly needed victory — albeit one against a team that dropped to 1-8 overall and 0-6 in the SEC.
“We needed a win,” Pinkel said. “I don’t care who we played, we needed a win.”
Indeed. Missouri not only improved to 4-4 overall and 1-4 in the conference, but it also kept its bowl hopes alive and avoided a near-certain last-place finish in the SEC East.
That and the resurgence of Franklin allows MU to head into its game at No. 3 Florida next Saturday on a positive note.
“I just see his poise,” Pinkel said of Franklin. “He’s always been like that. It’s something that bothers some people, they want him to show a little more fire. That’s just the way he plays quarterback, which is awesome.”
When quizzed further about his decision to replace Berkstresser, Pinkel simply said that he did what he had to.
“It’s a call that you’ve got to make,” Pinkel said. “We do what’s best for (our) team. If (Franklin) had gotten hurt out there, the questions might be a little bit different.”
But he didn’t. And they weren’t. Which perhaps explains why Franklin — sporting a grin and a large silver Superman chain around his neck after the game — couldn’t have been more optimistic about the future.
“I’m 100 percent sure — unless I get hit by a car or something — that I will play next week,” he said.