Junior quarterback James Franklin is set to return behind center Saturday afternoon when Missouri, coming off its first Southeastern Conference win with its 33-10 topple of Kentucky, meets Florida in Gainesville.
After the dual-threat Franklin left early in the Vanderbilt game three weeks ago with an MCL sprain, coach Gary Pinkel and Franklin himself confirmed on Monday he would start against the No. 8 Gators (7-1, 6-1 SEC), a team the Tigers (4-4, 1-4 SEC) haven’t seen since 1966.
Franklin’s year has been riddled by injury. Corbin Berkstresser has relieved the Maxwell Award preseason watch list mention four times this season, including three starts. Most recently, Berkstresser started in place of Franklin against Kentucky last weekend before Franklin took his place early in the second half.
“We knew he could play with great restriction,” Pinkel said after the game of Franklin. “Corbin was struggling … We decided to keep (Franklin) in, just to get some reps, just to get some confidence back.”
Franklin spoke after the game and said he noticed a boost in energy from his teammates upon his taking the field.
“They were all yelling and getting excited and everything,” he said. “I think that kind of helped with some of the enthusiasm. They were trying to get me going and I think when they were trying to do that they got themselves going as well.”
The question riding with the Tigers on their trip to the Swamp will regard Franklin’s effectiveness. Franklin, who came into the year on the mend from a spring surgery in his throwing shoulder’s labrum, said he’s dealt with pain ever since the season’s opening kickoff.
“I really can’t remember the last time I threw without the shoulder (pain),” Franklin said Monday.
Franklin appeared resurgent in less than one quarter of play against Vanderbilt on Oct. 6. In two series, he commanded Missouri down field for two short field goals on 5 for 9 passing and 56 yards. He added a 23-yard rush that resulted in his knee injury.
“My whole thing with him is just the same thing: you have to protect yourself,” Pinkel said Monday. “It’s difficult for him a little bit. (He’s) competitive. You say to fall down. It’s not in (his blood) to fall down.”
On Wednesday’s SEC coaches teleconference, Pinkel said he recently spoke to Franklin in his office to say how “proud” he was.
“He’s been through a lot personally,” Pinkel said. “He’s a battler … he has the potential to be a great player. I’ll never deviate from that.”
Assisting Franklin in his return could possibly be Missouri’s rising run game, which combined for 186 yards against Kentucky, 99 yards more that it passed for.
At the helm on the ground attack has been Kendial Lawrence, who’s averaging 5.4 yards a carry to go along with 632 yards and seven touchdowns in his senior campaign. Against the Wildcats, he touted the ball 23 times, a career high, for 108 yards and two touchdowns.
Along with Lawrence, Missouri called for the run 15 more times between sophomore Marcus Murphy and freshman Russell Hansbrough.
“That just says we can do it differently each game,” Lawrence said of his team’s run-pass differential after the game. “Run one game, pass one game … hopefully we’ll be able to pull it all together and be dominant in both those aspects.”
Pinkel has resisted saying that the SEC has altered his team’s traditional approach with a spread offense. On Wednesday, he said injuries to his offensive line and to his starting quarterback have made it difficult to evaluate things.
Certainly, Berskstresser’s consistency struggles could have affected the play calls. But Missouri showed a clear preference for the run last weekend. The team showed multiple sets with a tight end lined up for extra run protection.
“We looked at that. It was something we did a little bit last year,” Pinkel said. “We have some limitation offensively, we know that … We’ve had to make a few adjustments. We’ve had to change our whole offense. We kind of changed the ball control offense is pretty much what we did.”
Franklin said he was prepared for either offensive attack choice Saturday.
“We’re going to try and run the ball as much as we can and we’re going to try to throw it as much as we can,” he said Monday, “and whichever one’s working better Saturday we’ll stick with it.”
Next test for defense
After allowing 533 yards of total offense to Alabama and a week off on a bye, Pinkel said he was pleased to see his defense reclaim its “mojo” after Saturday’s game. The unit held the Wildcats to 179 total yards (26 in the second half).
“We’re playing really good defense overall,” Pinkel said. “Even the times where our offense has problems and puts the defense on the field a lot longer than they should be … I’m very pleased with how we've been playing defense.”
Of course, the opponent must be considered here. The Wildcats have struggled mightily on offense this season. This week, Missouri will meet a team whose balanced attack has had opponents reeling.
The Gators are fourth in points against across the country. Tailback Mike Gillislee is averaging 4.5 yards per carry on the ground for 729 yards and seven touchdowns.
“I don’t think you stop him,” Pinkel said Wednesday. “You try and contain him the best you can.”
Along with Gillislee, quarterback Jeff Driskel has kept defenses honest. On the season, he’s 99 for 153 for 1,114 yards and eight touchdowns compared to three interceptions, two of which came last weekend in the team’s first loss of the season to Georgia. Driskel also fumbled away twice in the loss.
So Driskel and the Gators will look to avenge themselves this week. And in the way will be the Tigers’ defense, a unit that leads the nation in fumbles forced (17).
“We all know what turnovers do in winning and losing games,” Pinkel said. “What we always tell our players is fumbles don't just happen. You create them.”