Missouri desperately needed a response after visiting Toledo pulled within a point late in the third quarter Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
Senior quarterback James Franklin could sense that and he provided it — with his legs — in leading the Tigers to a 38-23 victory and the program’s first 2-0 start since 2010.
“He’s a competitor,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “If we’re struggling a little bit, he can do that. He’s capable. He’s got to pick the right moments and the right time.”
Franklin picked the perfect time against the Rockets, who only trailed 24-23 after Alonso Russell got behind the defense on a blown coverage and hauled in a 41-yard touchdown with 4 minutes, 22 seconds left in the third quarter.
Toledo’s touchdown quieted the 56,785 in attendance — or what remained at that point — before Franklin sparked a sluggish offense to a 10-play touchdown march with three carries for 33 yards on the game’s most important drive.
The signature moment came when Franklin finished off a 6-yard run along the Tigers’ sideline by planting Toledo’s Chase Murdock — a 6-foot, 215-pound senior middle linebacker — on his backside, sending a clear message that he didn’t intend to let Missouri lose.
“It was really a last-second thing,” said Franklin, who led the Tigers with 77 yards rushing on 12 carries. “I was going to go out of bounds then I saw him and said, ‘I’m going for it.’ It was for dramatic effect. I could hear the guys on the sideline and on the field. They were pretty excited after that.”
Four plays later, tailback Henry Josey capped the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run on an option.
The Tigers’ defense forced a quick punt, which turned into a disaster for Toledo when Jeremiah Detmer’s rugby-style kick hit an upback and only traveled nine yards to the Rockets’ 44.
Marcus Murphy then capped a 10-play drive with an 8-yard touchdown that iced the win.
Sophomore safety Ian Simon snuffed out the Rockets’ next drive — and any realistic hope for a comeback — with a leaping interception.
Before that, the game remained very much in doubt.
It started well for the Tigers, who grabbed the early lead on a 35-yard field goal by Andrew Baggett and led the rest of the way after Josey’s 1-yard touchdown run in the first quarter.
Toledo only trailed 10-9 thanks to three Detmer field goal, a 24-yarder in the first quarter and kicks of 46 and 41 yards in the second quarter, with Missouri’s offense having stalled.
But Franklin helped rally the Tigers for a 10-play, 75-yard drive capped by a picture-perfect back-shoulder fade to Dorial Green-Beckham for a 9-yard touchdown and a 17-9 lead with 1:14 remaining before halftime.
The Rockets marched to the Missouri 3 before senior safety Matt White picked off a deflected Terrance Owens pass in the end zone as time expired on a forced throw to tight end Alex Zmolik, which E.J. Gaines tipped into the air.
The second half started ominously for the Tigers when linebacker Andrew Wilson was penalized and ejected from the game for targeting Bernard Reedy on the fifth play after halftime. Wilson also will miss the first half Sept. 21 at Indiana.
But later in that drive, junior defensive end Markus Golden seized the momentum for Missouri when he picked off Owens and rumbled 70 yards to the end zone.
“I got a good get-off and the ball popped up,” Golden said. “Before I knew, I just remember pushing him I guess and the ball fell in my left hand. I just did the rest.”
It turned out to be a wash when Golden was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct after ramming the ball to the turf with authority and pointing to the crowd.
The ensuing 15-yard penalty, which was enforced on the kickoff, coupled with Reedy’s 59-yard kickoff return provided a temporary lifeline for the Rockets.
Four plays later, Owens scored Toledo’s first touchdown of the season on a 4-yard scamper around the left end.
After Franklin was stuffed on a third-and-1 sneak on the ensuing drive, Owens hit Alonzo on the blown coverage.
Of course, that’s when Franklin went to work.