It wasn’t until late in the third quarter that Missouri began to assert control against its feisty Sun Belt Conference visitor Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
The Tigers, 4-0, managed to finish non-conference play unbeaten with a deceptively lopsided 41-19 victory against Arkansas State, but it was far from easy.
“We did a great job as a football team finishing,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said.
Before that, it was a struggle.
After trailing 14-13 at halftime, the Red Wolves, 2-3, retook the lead on the opening drive of the second half when kicker Brian Davis connected on a 44-yard field goal, one of four he drilled on the night.
With a crowd of 62,468 growing increasingly anxious, quarterback James Franklin engineered two long touchdown marches that helped turn the tide, including a go-ahead 94-yard drive that put the Tigers in front to stay.
Missouri took the lead for the final time when Franklin, who finished 21 of 30 for 256 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions, connected with senior wide receiver L’Damian Washington for a 5-yard touchdown.
Franklin had a key 18-yard scramble, his first run of the game, and completed 5 of 6 passes for 53 yards on the drive. The Tigers’ lead stood at 20-16 after Franklin’s two-point conversion pass was intercepted in the end zone.
Missouri’s defense, which allowed 285 yards before halftime but only 140 in the second half, then forced a three-and-out before the offense went 87 yards to extend the lead.
Junior running back Henry Josey, who had a 51-yard run on the drive, put the Tigers in front 27-16 with 1-yard score on an option pitch.
Arkansas State drew back within one score on Davis’ fourth field goal, a 33-yard kick, but Missouri salted away the win on Franklin’s 9-yard touchdown run with 5:06 remaining.
Senior E.J. Gaines picked off Adam Kennedy to set up another touchdown, a 5-yard hookup between Franklin and sophomore Dorial Green-Beckham.
“At halftime, we weren’t playing real well as a football team, but we did the things necessary in the second half,” Pinkel said.
The Wolves drew first blood, using the Statue of Liberty play — wide receiver J.D. McKissic ran for 32 yards on the end-around — to set up a 41-yard field by Davis.
Next, Missouri, which had gone three-and-out on the game’s opening possession, drove down the field but came up empty when sophomore Andrew Baggett, a Lee’s Summit North graduate, pulled a 24-yard field goal try wide left.
It was part of a slow start overall for the Tigers.
“We need to have more of a sense of urgency and be ready to execute plays and score touchdowns,” Franklin said.
It got worse when senior cornerback Randy Ponder was ejected for targeting on Arkansas State’s next drive, which netted another Davis field goal and a 6-0 lead.
Missouri answered by marching 75 yards on five plays — all runs — capped by Marcus Murphy’s 8-yard touchdown his for a 7-6 lead.
The Tigers increased that lead early in the second quarter when Franklin lobbed a 68-yard touchdown pass over the top of the Wolves’ defense to Green-Beckham.
“From where I was running, it looked like a long slow, ball in the air and I didn’t know when it was coming down,” said Green-Beckham, who finished with four catches for 95 yards and two scores.
Driving with all the momentum, Murphy’s fumble near midfield allowed the Wolves to fight back into the game.
Quarterback Adam Kennedy, a Utah State transfer who went 37 of 46 for 308 yards, led an 11-play drive after the turnover capped with a 17-yard scoring strike to Julian Jones, which pulled Arkansas State within 14-13.
Missouri narrowly avoided falling behind at halftime with a goal-line stand in the final 40 seconds.
The Wolves reached the Tigers’ 1 on a 96-yard march but were stuffed on consecutive runs up the middle and lost 22 yards on a desperation heave by Kennedy as time expired with defensive end Markus Golden in his face.
“It definitely gave us hope and gave us momentum,” junior defensive Kony Ealy said.
That’s also what Missouri still has entering SEC play next week at Vanderbilt.