The rocks remained unchanged.
Hours after the final whistle blew and the light fixtures high atop Memorial Stadium went dark, the iconic “Rock M” nestled behind Memorial Stadium’s north end zone consisted of as many rocks as it had hours earlier at kickoff.
As is Senior Day tradition, Missouri’s departing seniors make the pilgrimage to the “Rock M” to claim a rock as their own; forever a keepsake of their time as Tiger. Following Missouri’s demoralizing 31-27 defeat to Syracuse Saturday night, no such voyage was made.
“It kind of sucks,” senior wide receiver T.J. Moe said.
Trailing 27-24, Syracuse’s offense took the field at its own 19-yard line with 1:43 remaining in the game. After a key 19-yard completion on 4th-and-10, the Orange had new life and a first down at the Tiger 17-yard line with 31 seconds remaining.
Missouri’s defense was ill-prepared for what was next. Syracuse went four-wide, with three receivers stacked to the formation’s right side. Missouri’s secondary was supposed to check to another coverage. The haphazard call from the sidelines arrived late, and the switch was never made.
The consequence of the tardy audible was Syracuse’s knockout blow, as quarterback Ryan Nassib threw to his right and connected with a wide-open Alec Lemon — the beneficiary of the blown coverage — who crossed the goal-line uncontested to give Syracuse the lead.
“We actually beat ourselves,” junior corner Randy Ponder said. “It’s nothing they did. It was a mental error on our part.”
In his postgame press conference, coach Gary Pinkel said no single play was responsible for his team’s defeat. He was right.
Missouri had 1st-and-goal from the 4-yard line in the second quarter but was forced to settle for an Andrew Baggett field goal. Baggett missed a 42-yard attempt early in the fourth quarter. Multiple first downs were called back due to holding penalties. Senior corner Kip Edwards dropped an interception in the end zone that would’ve abruptly halted what was ultimately a game-tying drive by the Orange. And the Tiger offense failed to convert numerous third-and-short opportunities late.
“I feel like we should have won the game,” senior linebacker Zaviar Gooden said.
On a night characterized by missed opportunities, the Tigers squandered one of two chances to record their sixth victory and become bowl-eligible for the eighth consecutive season.
“Penalties killed us and dumb mistakes killed us,” senior left tackle Elvis Fisher said.
On a night meant for bidding adieu to Missouri’s seniors, it was junior quarterback James Franklin who took center stage early.
Franklin, who threw four late touchdowns last week against Tennessee, seemingly picked up where he left off, throwing a touchdown on each of the Tigers’ first two drives.
Franklin hurled a pass in the direction of Green-Beckham, who was running a tunnel screen. Green-Beckham hauled in the ball and promptly outran everyone to the end zone for a 70-yard touchdown.
Franklin completed his first six pass attempts of Missouri’s next drive, which ended with redshirt sophomore receiver Jimmie Hunt showing some elusiveness after the catch on his way to a 30-yard touchdown reception. At halftime, Franklin had completed 12-of-16 attempts for 237 yards and the pair of touchdowns as the Tigers led 17-10 behind 282 yards of offense.
After a third quarter dominated by defensive play, Franklin opted not to pitch the ball on a third-down option run early in the fourth quarter. Franklin was brought down shy of the first-down line and, upon collision, suffered an apparent injury.
“He was playing pretty good, he really was,” Pinkel said.
For the second time this season, redshirt freshman backup Corbin Berkstresser was called upon to enter the game in relief of Franklin. Unlike the first time against Vanderbilt, the backup was ready for his number to be called.
With Franklin appearing woozy without his helmet on the sidelines, Berkstresser promptly engineered a six-play, 79-yard drive culminating in a 3-yard touchdown run by senior tailback Kendial Lawrence that put the Tigers ahead 24-17 with 7:07 remaining.
The only remaining offense for Missouri came following an interception by Ponder gave the Tigers the ball at midfield with 4:24 remaining. The Orange defense bent, but didn’t break; forcing the Tigers to settle for a 46-yard Baggett field goal.
On the other side of the ball, the wheels came off in the fourth quarter for the Tiger defense which has carried the team so often this season; albeit a defense playing without its best player: junior defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson. Richardson was suspended due to a violation of team rules.
Junior corner E.J. Gaines said there was no angst in the locker room toward the team’s suspended star.
“He’s a part of this family and he always will be regardless of how many games he misses,” Gaines said. “Even when he leaves here, he’ll still be a Tiger so we’re definitely behind him.”
With a non-existent pass rush, Nassib was spotted ample time to throw by his offensive line. The senior would amass 139 of his 385 passing yards in the game’s final 7:07.
“We’re used to having the team on our back, and we’re used to having the spotlight on us and taking care of business,” Ponder said. “And this time we came up short.”
Franklin finished 17-of-23 with 279 yards and the two touchdowns. Lawrence scored one touchdown and gained 131 yards on 27 carries. Redshirt junior L’Damian Washington led Tiger receivers with 76 yards on five catches. Lemon totaled 244 yards and two touchdowns on 12 catches for the Orange.
“You win some, you lose some, but this one hurts a little more,” Fisher said.