COLUMBIA — It’s certainly not a stretch to say Missouri’s road test against Tennessee on Saturday will come down to the offenses.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
Led by an NFL-bound quarterback in Tyler Bray and two tall, fast, big-play receivers in Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson, the Volunteers feature one of the best offenses in the Southeastern Conference. Tennessee racked up 718 yards and 55 points at home in its 55-48 win over Troy last week, yet another impressive notch in the belt of the SEC’s third highest-scoring offense.
“The yards and points they’ve put up are staggering,” said Missouri coach Gary Pinkel.
Fortunately for Missouri, the Vols’ defense has been every bit as ineffective as the offense has been impressive. Against Troy, it allowed 721 yards, the most ever by a Tennessee opponent. On the season, the Vols — who switched to a 3-4 alignment this season — are dead last in the conference in yards allowed and scoring defense.
So therein lies the hope for Missouri, which enters with a 4-5 record (1-5 in the conference). To make a bowl for the eighth consecutive season, the Tigers must win two of their last three games, and Saturday’s 11:21 a.m. showdown against the struggling Vols (4-5, 0-5 in the SEC) poses a terrific opportunity for the Tigers to swipe one of those victories.
Missouri just needs to score, something that certainly seems possible despite the Tigers’ disappointing 14-7 road loss at No. 6 Florida last Saturday.
On one hand, the offense — which has been banged up and largely dormant all season — moved the ball against the physical Gators’ defense, racking up 23 first downs to Florida’s 11, outgaining the Gators 335-276 and running 86 plays to Florida’s 56.
“Really, we had our best day, efficiency-wise,” said offensive coordinator David Yost, whose group is 12th out of 14 SEC teams in total offense. “We had five drives of eight plays or more, and we hadn’t done that for a long time. It was definitely an improvement.”
Problem is, junior quarterback James Franklin, who was making his first start since he suffered a knee sprain against Vanderbilt on Oct. 6, struggled with his mechanics and accuracy, throwing four interceptions.
Still, his teammates and coaches rushed to his defense.
"James was the reason we were able to move the ball up and down the field like we were,” said senior receiver T.J. Moe. “He came with an attitude that he hasn’t shown in a while here — that kid was playing tough as nails and it’s because he’s been so injured. … He’s been trying to protect his body so he can help the team, I get that. He just decided on Saturday that he didn’t care.”
But it didn’t take much to see how hurt Franklin was about the loss, both immediately following the game and during the Tigers’ weekly media session on Monday. His trademark “Yes sirs” were still there, but he was quiet and spoke in short sentences, a departure from his normally upbeat personality.
Yost surmised that the steady stream of injuries and his up-and-down play contributed to that.
“I’ve never had a quarterback go through anything like this,” said Pinkel, who added that the junior has “been through hell.”
“Certainly I do support him,” Pinkel said.
Considering that Troy threw for almost 500 yards on the Vols last week, there’s little doubt the Tigers will need Franklin to turn in a bounce-back performance if they hope to win.
“What bothers me is I felt like I let my teammates down,” Franklin said.
The good news, Yost said, is that this isn’t the only time he’s seen Franklin feel that way. After throwing an interception and completing only 19 of 35 passes in a 24-17 loss to Kansas State last year, Franklin came back the next week and ripped Iowa State for five touchdowns in a 52-17 win.
“Last year after the K-State game, you could see it and feel it in him. He felt he let down his teammates down,” Yost said. “The next week, he was able to get back and get going…he’s always come back.”
Yost added that it was important for Franklin to have a good week of practice. And apparently, he’s well on his way toward doing that, which could be just what the Tigers need in a game that could devolve into a shootout.
“He had his best practice of the year (Tuesday),” Pinkel said of Franklin.
To reach Terez A. Paylor, call 816-234-4489 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/TerezPaylor.