Several times during the fourth quarter, the Memorial Stadium public address announcer admonished Missouri fans not to rush the field after time ran out in the Tigers’ 28-21 victory Saturday against Texas A&M.
So, it took about 20 seconds before the black-clad fans burst forth onto Faurot Field to celebrate an outright SEC East division title and a berth in next Saturday’s championship game at the Georgia Dome.
Picked to finish sixth in the division before the season started, No. 5 Missouri, 11-1 and 7-1 in the SEC, will now play an equally surprising Auburn team for the conference after rallying from the season’s first halftime deficit to beat the No. 19 Aggies and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.
“How about my football team — the coaches and all the guys in that locker room that work so hard?” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “I just can’t say enough about them.”
Fittingly, junior running back Henry Josey’s 57-yard touchdown burst with 3 minutes, 34 seconds remaining lifted the Tigers to the win.
“All night, they were stuffing the run game, but for him to come up in the clutch, that’s what playmakers do,” senior wide receiver L’Damian Washington said.
Beyond that, no player better epitomized Missouri’s rebound season from last year’s 5-7 disappointment than Josey, who missed the entire 2012 season with a gruesome knee injury.
“When you see him run down that field and take off, outrun everybody down that field, you saw all of us offensive linemen,” sophomore center Evan Boehm said. “I think we ran 4.6s (40-yard dash) getting down there.”
Missouri’s defense held Texas A&M’s high-powered offense to 153 second-half yards and limited Manziel to the fewest yards of total offense (216) he’s ever had in a college start.
“If you can hold Texas A&M to 21 points, you’re playing pretty good defense,” Pinkel said.
Missouri had shown flickers of life on offense late in the second quarter, but the first half was a disjointed and disappointed 30 minutes on the whole for the nation’s 13th-best scoring offense.
“They changed up a lot of things on us that they’ve been doing tendency-wise,” offensive coordinator Josh Henson.
Trailing 14-7 at halftime, Missouri made its adjustments and turned things around, starting with a 75-yardmarch on seven plays after receiving the opening kickoff for the game-tying touchdown.
One play after senior quarterback James Franklin drilled a 35-yard strike to senior L’Damian Washington on a post route, junior Marcus Murphy trotted into the end zone on a 2-yard touchdown, his ninth of the season.
Murphy returned a punt on A&M’s next drive 31 yards, setting up the Tigers near midfield.
Eight plays later, Franklin connected with Washington on a 5-yard fade for the go-ahead touchdown and Missouri’s first lead of the game. The pass was originally ruled incomplete but was overturned on review.
The Aggies, 8-4 and 4-4 in the SEC, didn’t exactly wilt, tying the game early in the fourth quarter on a 7-yard touchdown run by senior running back Ben Malena.
That score capped a 98-yard march by A&M, but served as a mere prelude to Josey’s heroics.
During the first half, the Aggies broke on top midway through the first quarter when sophomore running back Tra Carson weaved through the Missouri defense on a 29-yard touchdown, sliding from the gasp of senior defensive end Michael Sam and senior safety Matt White on his circuitous route to the end zone.
Meanwhile, the Tigers’ offense was stuck in neutral for the first quarter and a half against a defense that entered played ranked dead last among SEC teams in total defense and ahead of only Kentucky in scoring defense.
Not even redshirt freshman quarterback Maty Mauk’s preplanned, second-quarter series — which came on the heels of a fumbled punt return forced by Morgan Steward and recovered by John Gibson — could get Missouri untracked.
Pinned at the 6-yard line, senior quarterback seemed to put the game on his shoulders. He had three carries for 19 yards, including a 2-yard sack, and completed all three pass attempts for 67 yards on a game-tying drive.
Franklin floated a 38-yard rainbow touchdown over the top to sophomore Dorial Green-Beckham.
Unfortunately for the Tigers, Manziel and the Aggies had an immediate answer.
Sophomore tailback Brandon Williams broke free for 43 yards on the first play of A&M’s ensuing drive, which ended with a vintage Manziel touchdown toss.
He scrambled from the pocket and, with senior defensive end Michael Sam bearing down from behind, lobbed an off-balance, 32-yard touchdown to senior Derel Walker, restoring the Aggies’ lead.
The score remained 14-7 at halftime when Missouri sophomore Andrew Baggett pushed a 47-yard field goal try wide right on the final play.