OXFORD, Miss. — Bring on Johnny Football.
By TOD PALMER
The Kansas City Star
After a 24-10 victory Saturday at No. 24 Mississippi, all that stands between No. 8 Missouri and the Southeastern Conference championship game is a showdown with Texas A&M and the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, sophomore quarterback Johnny Manziel.
The Tigers, 10-1 overall and 6-1 in the SEC, took care of business against the Rebels at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, clinching at least a share of the SEC East division title in senior quarterback James Franklin’s return to the starting lineup after a four-game absence.
“To say I’m proud of my team would be an understatement,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said.
Franklin, who completed 12 of 19 passes for 142 yards with an interception, opened the game on fire. He didn’t have an incomplete pass until the third quarter.
On the first play from scrimmage, Franklin eluded a sack and connected with Marcus Lucas for a 19-yard gain. He went three for three on the up-tempo drive, which ended on a 4-yard TD run by junior running back Henry Josey 2:45 into the first quarter.
“I thought he did an outstanding job,” Pinkel said of Franklin. “The guy hadn’t played in about six weeks and had a lot of pressure on him to play well, because (backup quarterback) Maty (Mauk) had been playing well.”
Mississippi’s defense stiffened from there, forcing back-to-back three-and-outs, but Missouri’s defense pitched a first-quarter shutout.
Senior cornerback Randy Ponder picked off Bo Wallace, who endured flulike symptoms and missed the first two third-quarter drives, on Mississippi’s first drive. It extended Missouri’s streak of consecutive games with at least one turnover to 41, which is the longest in the nation.
The Rebels, 7-4, marched 85 yards on 19 plays on their second drive, but freshman Josh Augusta blocked Andrew Ritter’s 23-yard field-goal try on the first play of the second quarter.
“That was awesome,” senior linebacker Andrew Wilson said. “Me and Josh are right next to each other, and we’ve been talking all week about how he was going to get one. I was so excited for him, and he was so pumped.”
On the second drive of the second quarter, Missouri turned to redshirt freshman Maty Mauk, who brought a spark to the sputtering offense during his preplanned playing time. Mauk converted on third and 8 with a 60-yard bomb down the middle to junior Bud Sasser, which helped set up sophomore Andrew Baggett’s 33-yard field goal for a 10-0 lead.
The Rebels answered with a 30-yard field goal by Ritter, but Missouri — with Franklin back at quarterback — tacked on a late touchdown on Marcus Murphy’s 3-yard run for a 17-3 halftime lead.
With Barry Brunetti in at quarterback to start the second half, Mississippi blitzed down the field in four plays and pulled within a touchdown on sophomore running back I’Tavius Mathers’ 45-yard touchdown only 1:33 into the third quarter.
On Missouri’s ensuing drive, one play after freshman defensive tackle Harold Brantley rumbled 26 yards on a fake punt, Franklin was picked off by Rebels safety Cody Prewitt.
The Tigers’ defense forced a three-and-out, and Franklin engineered an eight-play, 85-yard touchdown march, which was capped by Josey’s 12th touchdown of the season on a 10-yard run that restored the two-touchdown advantage.
Mississippi appeared to trim that deficit midway through the fourth quarter on a 12-yard pass from Wallace to Ja-Mes Logan, but the score was overturned when replays showed Logan stepped out at the Missouri 7.
Wallace tried a first-down fade, which was incomplete, and defensive tackle Lucas Vincent snuffed out a reverse for a 6-yard loss.
Senior safety Matt White broke up Wallace’s third-down throw into the end zone, a pass intended for Donte Moncrief, and Wallace tossed another incompletion on fourth down.
During three trips to the red zone, Mississippi managed only three points, and after racking up at least 500 yards in four straight games, the Rebels totaled just 378 yards on offense.
“Our focus just increases when we get in the red zone and we really study the red zone hard throughout the week,” Wilson said.
Missouri ran out the final 8:08 with a clock-eating drive and reached the 10-win plateau for the fifth time, including four times on Pinkel’s watch (2007, 2008, 2010, 2013). The only other time the Tigers posted double-digit wins was in 1960 when Dan Devine’s Tigers finished 11-0.
To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/todpalmer.