KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Amid the rush of white jerseys storming onto the field on Saturday, there was a coach dressed in all black, looking desperately for his quarterback.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
In Gary Pinkels mind, Missouris James Franklin has been through hell this season. After accounting for 36 total touchdowns in 2011, he has battled knee and shoulder injuries that have affected his play, most notably in a brutal four-interception outing last week.
Hes been through so much, Pinkel said. Everyone wants to discard that.
So after Andrew Baggett made a 35-yard field goal that sealed Missouris 51-48 come-from-behind, four-overtime road win over Tennessee on Saturday, Pinkel sought out Franklin and embraced him.
Just one week after playing the goat at Florida, the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Franklin completed 19 of 32 passes for 226 yards and four touchdowns, guiding MU back from a 14-point third-quarter deficit.
It was more like I told you youre a great player, good job, Im proud of how you played today, Franklin recalled Pinkel telling him during the embrace. It felt good.
It should. The victory is not only Missouris first road win as a Southeastern Conference member, it also improved the Tigers record to 5-5 overall, 2-5 in the SEC, and puts them in position to become bowl eligible for the eighth straight season with a victory in one of their last two games.
Hes a warrior, Pinkel said. A tough kid.
Franklin showed it in the third quarter with MU trailing 28-14. He threw a pretty deep ball to receiver Bud Sasser, who outjumped the cornerback for a 40-yard gain. That set up running back Kendial Lawrences second touchdown of the game, a 1-yard plunge that made the score 28-21.
When Missouri got the ball back with a little under five minutes left in the fourth quarter, Franklin converted a fourth-and-10 by hanging in the pocket just long enough for Marcus Lucas to come open over the middle. Seventeen yards later, MU had another set of downs and a new lease on life.
A few plays later, again on fourth down, Franklin scrambled and spotted freshman receiver Dorial Green-Beckham for a 25-yard touchdown that sent the game to overtime.
Franklin opened the first overtime with a 24-yard touchdown to Jimmie Hunt, which Tennessee matched in only a few plays. When Tennessee opened the second overtime with a touchdown, Missouri matched with Franklins 18-yard touchdown to Lucas.
Missouri opened the third overtime with Franklins fourth TD pass, to Green-Beckham from 10 yards out. But after Franklin misfired on MUs mandatory two-point conversion try, Tennessee had a chance to win after quarterback Tyler Bray threw his fourth touchdown pass and tied the score at 48-48. But he misfired on the two-point try and then Tennessee finally cracked.
The Vols opened the fourth overtime with the ball and went for it on fourth-and-3 at the MU 18. But the gamble by embattled Tennessee coach Derek Dooley came up snake eyes when Tigers redshirt freshman safety Ian Simon poked Brays pass away from Zach Rogers.
I looked up, Simon said, and the ball was on the ground.
Missouri go the ball needing only a field goal to win, and Pinkel played it safe, running the ball three times before calling on Baggett, who had never kicked a game-winning field goal at any level until Saturday.
The best feeling in the world, said Baggett, who smiled as he was lifted into the air by a teammate.
Simon said he started crying upon seeing the kick split the uprights.
It proves that you can play at this level, Simon said. It proves that we belong here in the SEC.
It also proved Missouris starting quarterback is a tough son-of-a-gun. Even Tigers star defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, who has not been shy about criticizing his offense, sought out Franklin after the game to tell him as much.
Thats how you battle adversity, Richardson told him. Thats how you shut your critics up.
Franklin threw one interception on Saturday during the Tigers pitiful first half in which they were outgained 383-64, and criticism spilled over to at least one member of the crowd of 89,272 at Neyland Stadium in the third quarter.
Some Mizzou fan was like James, youre horrible, Franklin said. I kind of peeked just to see who it was.
The two wound up meeting after the game Franklin doled out high fives to fans behind the MU bench.
That same guy was saying I was great, Franklin said, with a laugh.
When asked if there was a part of him that wanted to stick it to his naysayers, Franklin shook his head, humble as ever.
No sir, not really, I dont think about that too much, he said. I just want to perform for my teammates.
Then a beat passed and a smile slowly creased his lips.
I mean, I dont think so, Franklin said. But maybe, deep down, there is.