James Franklin (1) eludes Kentucky defender Avery Williamson (40). Franklin entered the game in the second half, the first time he had played since being injured three weeks ago.
Story by Joe Vozzelli
Photos by Karen Mitchell
James Franklin waited patiently on the sideline for almost three quarters, knowing he could help Missouri win its first Southeastern Conference game.
For the first 40 minutes of Missouri’s 33-10 victory over Kentucky Saturday at Faurot Field, the junior quarterback watched as his replacement, Corbin Berkstresser, struggled.
Kendial Lawrence (4) runs through a hole created by the offensive line. Lawrence ran for 108 yards against Kentucky.
Senior tailback Kendial Lawrence said the switch at quarterback provided a spark.
“Just seeing him want to be out there and then the coaches telling him it’s OK for him to go out and play, it was a huge lift for our team,” he said.
With Franklin back in the driver’s seat, the Tigers finally notched their first SEC win.
Berkstresser was 10-for-18 for 71 yards and two interceptions in the Tigers’ homecoming game against the Wildcats. On Missouri’s opening drive of the second half, Berkstresser threw a pass, which floated over wide receiver Bud Sasser’s head and into the waiting arms of Kentucky cornerback J.D. Harmon.
Berkstresser acknowledged that it was a “bad throw.”
Making his third start at quarterback this season against Kentucky, Berkstresser was so ineffective that Missouri coach Gary Pinkel elected to switch to Franklin with 4:58 left in the third quarter and Missouri ahead 17-10.
“I’m definitely disappointed in not playing up to my ability and having to come out like that,” Berkstresser said.
Franklin sat out of Missouri’s last contest against Alabama on Oct. 13 with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee. The junior quarterback warmed up with the first team offense before the game, throwing 25-yard pass patterns. But he wasn’t at full speed on a run to the left in 11-on-11 pregame drills.
Pinkel had a simple explanation for why Missouri changed quarterbacks.
“We needed a play,” he said.
Missouri’s coach said Franklin isn’t at full-speed yet, which forced offensive coordinator David Yost to go with a more conservative strategy.
“We also we very, very controlled in what we had in the run and the pass,” Pinkel said of the strategy once Franklin entered the game.
Pinkel said Missouri received “the OK from the medical staff” before the game that Franklin could play against Kentucky “with great restriction.”
The possibility of switching to Franklin was actually discussed earlier in the week.
“We talked about it in our Thursday staff meeting that if we got in that situation that we would most likely put James in,” Pinkel said.
Franklin had been throwing during Missouri’s bye week but was limited in his running ability. He first started to run on Sunday and didn’t look good at that point in the week, Pinkel said.
Franklin thought he could start against Kentucky but said he never lobbied with the coaches to start the game. He did admit that being on the sidelines despite knowing he could play isn’t something he’s used to.
“It’s definitely different. I’ve never really experienced that. I guess my freshman year when I was behind Blaine (Gabbert) but I guess I’ve kind of forgot about how it feels,” he said.
Franklin was told during the series before he came out on the field that he should warm-up and would be in the game on Missouri’s next offensive drive.
He finished the game 6-for-9 for a modest 16 yards.
After the game, Franklin told reporters he was confident in his ability to start in Missouri’s next contest, against No. 2 Florida (7-1, 6-1 SEC) on Nov. 3 in Gainesville, Fla. On a scale of one to 10, Franklin put the chances at a “10.1.”
With Missouri struggling to move the ball through the air all day, the Tigers’ tailbacks were forced to step up.
Lawrence, along with freshman tailback Russell Hansbrough and redshirt sophomore Marcus Murphy, accounted for 188 yards on the ground.
Lawrence had the most impressive day of the three, finishing the game with 108 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries. The senior tailback showed the form that Pinkel has spoken of all season.
Before Missouri’s opener against Southeastern Louisiana, Pinkel said the 5-foot-9-inch tailback had the best fall camp of anyone on the team.
Lawrence said it was exciting to be a key part of the offense.
“It’s a lot of fun. As a running back, you always like to run the ball,” he said.
Pinkel was pleased with Missouri’s ability to move the ball on the ground but would still like to see the team make big plays through the air on offense.
“We need to get the ball downfield more,“ he said.
One of Missouri’s downfield weapons, true freshman wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, led Missouri’s receivers with seven receptions on the game, including three in a row on what seemed to be the same play. Those sevens grabs were the most for Green-Beckham during his young Missouri career, although they were for a modest 25 yards.
Green-Beckham, last year’s No. 1 recruit according to Rivals.com, has endured an up-and-down year in his transition to college football. He’s faced challenges off the field as well, including a one-game suspension after being arrested for marijuana possession on Oct. 3.
“There’s plenty of times I felt confident. Even when the ball doesn’t go my way, I still got to do my part,” he said.
Aside from Missouri’s strong day from its tailbacks, the defense forced five fumbles and recovered three of them.
Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson said the defense watched film before the game, which showed that Kentucky’s tailbacks and quarterbacks had fumbling tendencies all season.
Richardson was solely responsible for the first of Missouri’s three takeaways.
With Kentucky moving the ball down the field on the opening drive of the game, Richardson wrested the ball out of Kentucky tailback Jonathan George’s grasp. The 6-foot-4-inch, 295-pound defensive tackle picked up the loose ball and scampered for 60 yards.
Kentucky quarterback Jalen Whitlow eventually caught the bulky defensive lineman and took him to the ground.
The Richardson fumble recovery extended Missouri’s takeaway streak to 26 consecutive games. Missouri’s three takeaways, including a 13-yard E.J. Gaines fumble recovery for a touchdown, helped the Tigers score 33 points, the most since the season-opening Southeastern Louisiana game.
Richardson said he was surprised someone caught him and even more surprised that it was Kentucky’s quarterback who did it.
Lawrence thought Richardson would score.
“I held my hands up. Touchdown. But he (Richardson) told me he got a little tired,” he said.
Richardson did his best Lawrence impersonation on the fumble return with a stiff-arm to Whitlow’s helmet. The Kentucky quarterback was somehow able to trip up Richardson, who fell to the ground.
Pinkel said the Richardson play reversed what had been an easy drive down the field for Kentucky. He was also impressed with Richardson’s speed, given his size.
“He reminds me a little bit of Aldon (Smith) when he did that against Oklahoma. He can run for a 295-pound guy. He can stiff-arm, too. I saw that,” he said.
Richardson agreed with his coach that he put a good stiff-arm on Kentucky’s quarterback. He also joked that it may be time for him to get more time on offense.
“(Pinkel) needs to move me to tight end,” Richardson joked.
After the Richardson fumble recovery, Missouri took over at the Kentucky 25-yard line and scored four plays later on Lawrence’s 5-yard rushing touchdown, which gave Missouri a 7-0 lead.
Missouri is now 4-4 overall, 1-4 in the SEC. Before Saturday’s game, the Tigers’ first four SEC opponents outscored them 133-55.
With the win, Missouri remains in the bowl picture, although it must win at least two of its remaining four games to reach bowl eligibility. Missouri has No. 2 Florida, followed by Tennessee, Syracuse and No. 20 Texas A&M, left to play on the schedule. All but the Syracuse game are on the road.
Richardson likened Missouri’s position this season to last year.
With the team under .500, the Tigers rattled off four straight wins, including their bowl game, to finish 8-5.
“It’s just like last year almost. We have to keep things rolling,” he said.