Hope was fading for Missouri when quarterback James Franklin left the Tigers’ game against No. 7 Georgia with 10 minutes, 35 seconds remaining.
The Bulldogs, who had fought back off the ropes in the third quarter after the Tigers played a near-perfect first half, seemed to have seized control and were poised for another comeback victory.
But thanks to a trick play and stout defense down the stretch, No. 25 Missouri finished off a 41-26 upset at Sanford Stadium and took control of the Southeastern Conference’s East Division.
“It’s a big win, because a lot of people said we don’t belong in the SEC and we’ve been dealing with that criticism,” MU defensive end Shane Ray said. “To be able to come out and beat a great team like Georgia, it’s epic. It’s a big deal. We had fun doing this.”
Missouri, 6-0, improved to 2-0 in the SEC and pulled off their first road win over a top 10 team since 1978.
“I said in August, and I said it last May after spring ball was over, that there’s something about these guys that’s really special,” Tigers coach Gary Pinkel said. “So, I’m real proud of these guys.”
When Franklin left because of a separated shoulder that will keep him sidelined for at least a few weeks, Missouri led only 28-26 after taking a 28-10 halftime lead.
Three plays later, junior wide receiver Bud Sasser took a lateral from backup Maty Mauk and threw a 40-yard touchdown to senior wide receiver L’Damian Washington that blunted the Bulldogs’ comeback bid.
And not even Pinkel knew it was coming.
“(Offensive coordinator Josh Henson) called it and I was talking to someone,” Pinkel said. “When I came back out, the three receivers were backed off and I said, ‘What are we backed off for?’ And Josh said, ‘We’re going to do the throwback pass, Coach.’ ”
The Bulldogs’ defense wasn’t fooled on the play, but Washington outmuscled freshman cornerback Shaq Wiggins with a leaping grab in the end zone.
“(Sasser) told me earlier this week if I was even with anybody he was going to throw the ball,” Washington said. “He said, ‘I know you’re going to beat them.’ ”
The first half had gone about as well as Missouri could have hoped despite the fact that Georgia broke on top with a 7-yard touchdown from Aaron Murray to Chris Conley late in the first quarter.
Missouri scored 28 of the next 31 points before halftime.
Franklin, who finished 18 of 27 passing for 170 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions, helped tie the score at 7-7 with a 5-yard scramble up the gut.
The Tigers took the lead on a 16-yard strike from Franklin to Washington, who finished with seven catches for 115 yards and two touchdowns.
Marshall Morgan’s 29-yard field goal trimmed the Tigers’ lead to 14-10, but junior Marcus Murphy’s scintillating 36-yard touchdown run — he swooped upfield off right tackle and left Georgia safety Corey Moore grasping at air on a cutback — restored Missouri’s momentum.
The defense took it from there.
Ray, a sophomore from Bishop Miege, crushed Murray from the blindside on the next play, jarring the ball loose. Senior Michael Sam scooped it up and returned it 21 yards for a touchdown and a 28-10 lead.
Georgia threatened to cut into that lead in the closing minutes before halftime, but defensive tackle Lucas Vincent, a junior from Olathe North, forced a Brendan Douglas fumble at the Tigers’ 7 and junior defensive end Markus Golden’s recovery preserved an 18-point halftime lead.
During the third quarter, Marshall added another field goal and Murray lobbed a 7-yard fade pass to Rantavious Wooten before Georgia whittled Missouri’s lead to two points on a 10-yard hookup from Murray to Conley early in the fourth quarter.
The score remained 28-26 after a failed two-point pass.
After Mauk started the trick play with a backward pass out to Sasser, kicker Andrew Baggett missed the extra point. But the MU defense buckled down, forcing a punt with a third-down sack and picking off Murray twice in the closing minutes.
Junior Henry Josey scored on a 7-yard run sandwiched between interceptions by senior corner Randy Ponder and sophomore linebacker Kentrell Brothers.