GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The frustration was clear in Sheldon Richardson’s voice, though his face was unemotional. Roughly 30 minutes after Missouri’s latest loss, a 14-7 defeat at the hands of No. 8 Florida on Saturday, he sounded like a man who had been here before.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
“Here” goes beyond the losing, though after the Tigers fell to 4-5 overall and 1-5 in the Southeastern Conference, Richardson was clearly tired of that, too. But when asked how it felt to dominate the Gators, to keep getting the ball back to a struggling offense that couldn’t make the leap, Richardson replied quickly.
“I’m used to it now,” he said.
But none of Missouri’s other losses hurt like this one. David Steckel’s defense had Florida’s number, even forcing a fumble that set up the Tigers’ only touchdown, a 1-yard run by Kendial Lawrence that gave the Tigers a 7-0 halftime lead before a shocked crowd of 90,496 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
“This was in reach,” Richardson said. “We wanted this one.”
But the Tigers were shut out in the second half. Missouri, which entered the game 12th out of 14 SEC teams in total offense, reached Florida’s side of the field six consecutive times in the half and came away empty-handed.
Florida, which improved to 8-1 overall and 7-1 in the SEC, took the lead with the help of two big plays, a 36-yard touchdown run by Omarius Hines and a 45-yard pass to running back Mike Gillislee. That’s why Tigers senior linebacker Will Ebner put the loss on the defense.
“We shut them out in the first half,” Ebner said. “Why couldn’t we do that in the second half?”
It is a commendable belief, one echoed by a few of his defensive teammates. But even quarterback James Franklin — who threw four interceptions, including three after halftime — wasn’t buying it. The defense, after all, held the Gators to 11 first downs, 170 rushing yards and 106 passing yards, well below their season averages in all three categories.
“I know they’re just trying to have my back,” Franklin said of his teammates, “but we can’t turn the ball over four times.”
Especially when it continued a trend of inconsistent quarterback play that has haunted the Tigers all season.
Three of Missouri’s last five offensive drives ended with interceptions as Franklin finished 24 for 51 passing for 236 yards. Missouri coach Gary Pinkel attributed Franklin’s poor accuracy to rust, though he was sacked four times.
“That’s just a guy that has not practiced consistently enough over the past two months,” Pinkel said. “It’s just like a golfer, you can’t go out and miss this many days — the timing is off.”
The Tigers also had a 40-yard field goal try blocked in the third quarter, the first of six straight fruitless drives that ended in Florida territory.
• With the score tied at 7-7, Franklin threw high to a wide-open Bud Sasser — who was streaking near the Florida end zone — and the pass was intercepted by Matt Elam, who returned to the Gators 44.
• With Florida leading 14-7 to start the fourth quarter, MU advanced to Florida’s 24 before a sack and an intentional grounding penalty pushed MU out of field-goal range.
• After MU’s defense force a three-and-out, Franklin promptly threw an interception to Florida linebacker Jon Bostic.
• Finally, MU received one last break when Florida missed a 24-yard field goal with 1:49 left. Franklin marched MU to the Florida 21, but sailed a third-down pass over L’Damian Washington’s outstretched fingertips and lofted a fourth-down pass into the hands of Gators safety Josh Evans for the game-clinching interception.
“I was just trying to take a shot,” Franklin said of the last throw. “I should have just gotten a first down because we had a timeout.”
Pinkel maintained after the game that the offense moved better with Franklin, who’s still not 100 percent because of a knee sprain.
“We’re proud of him,” Pinkel said. “He battled in there, he’s a guy who has been through so much. … he is the guy that gave us an opportunity against a great defense.”
Problem was, it wasn’t enough for a team that also played great defense thanks to Richardson, who continued his All-America candidacy with six tackles, 1 1/2 for loss, a forced fumble and a blocked field goal.
“We’ve just got to keep balling.” he said. “We’ve got some more games to play. It’s too late to get angry at each other now.”