After a 24-hour period of speculation, a time of relative unknown, the answer appeared to have splashed onto the scoreboard.
James Franklin’s digital body went up on the screen to the north end of Faurot Field and fans found comfort in the calling of his name as Missouri's quarterback.
But then the returning starter flipped on a baseball cap on the sideline. Redshirt freshman Corbin Berkstresser jogged onto the field.
A sellout crowd would stay seated throughout the night, all three hours and 19 minutes, all the way up to redshirt senior Kenronte Walker’s interception on Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly that ended the game and the Sun Devils’ chance to overcome a 24-20 deficit in regulation’s final minute.
“It was very fitting for those guys as they battled through the whole day,” coach Gary Pinkel said of the play.
Reports of Franklin’s status emerged Friday afternoon and the question of his availability remained before Missouri (2-1) took the kickoff. Pinkel’s response to the situation revealed few details beyond the injury itself: an inflamed bursa sac in the shoulder. Pinkel assured that the throwing shoulder that received surgery in the spring was not suffering any structural damage.
“It was going to be a game-time decision,” he said. "It was just too painful for him and he didn’t want to play. Between him and the medical staff, they make those decisions. I don't make those decisions. I told Corbin last night that he might have to play.”
And so it was Berkstresser who took the reigns of the Tigers, reeling from a 41-20 bummer in their Southeastern Conference debut a week before. He finished 21-of-41 for 198 yards and an interception. He added 25 yards and a touchdown on the ground with 18 carries.
“We rolled with 13 and it worked out pretty well,” said senior receiver T.J. Moe, who came on a slant and received Berkstresser’s longest pass of the day for 26 yards. “I thought Corbin did pretty well.”
In the second play of his career, Berkstresser had nowhere to run behind an offensive line transitioning with the loss of three preseason projected starters to injury. Three defenders engulfed him.
“(You have) a redshirt freshman center (Brad McNulty), a freshman at left guard (Evan Boehm) a walk-on at left guard (Max Copeland) and a redshirt sophomore at right tackle (Mitch Morse) that had never played before," Pinkel said. "It ain’t going to look pretty all the time. And then you throw a redshirt freshman behind that, it’s just … a lot of fun.”
Wherever the offense stumbled throughout the first half, the defense was around to relieve. The unit only surrendered 93 yards total through two quarters to what was the country’s seventh-best scoring team.
“(A new quarterback) changes the game and we all know that,” Pinkel said. “It’s different. But everybody’s got to step it up a little bit. The defense, everybody stepped it up.”
Junior linebacker Andrew Wilson recovered a fumble on an ASU punt return, and Berkstresser was set up just 25 yards away from the score in his second possession. He finished the short drive himself with a 6-yard plunge into the end zone.
“I called the wrong play first,” Berkstresser said, smiling. “I was like, 'I have to get in no matter what.' At that time I was like, 'I have to get in.'”
The run-focused attack was granted another short field when senior cornerback E.J. Gaines received a reverse hand-off on a punt return and jutted up ASU’s defense for 44 yards.
At the end of an 18-yard trip, senior tailback Kendial Lawrence scored his first of two touchdowns by weaving through the Sun Devils from 7 yards out. Lawrence’s second score came with a leap over his blockers, which gave Missouri a comforting 24-7 advantage with 4:08 remaining in the third.
But behind a resurgent Kelly, Arizona State would quickly cut into the Tigers’ lead, scoring a pair of touchdowns just three minutes apart in the final frame to come within four after a missed extra point.
After a three-and-out from Missouri, the Sun Devils took over with 1:58 remaining in the game. After halting two rush attempts from Kelly at the line of scrimmage, his pass for the game-winning score was lofted too high and into Walker’s hands.
Walker dashed out of the end zone and up to the 50-yard line, where he was shoved into his team’s sideline and players bunched around him in celebration.
“Anything that happens, I always think positive,” he said. “Just knowing (that) playing together as a team, somebody’s got to make a play. I was in place to make one tonight.”
Berkstresser said he found Walker after the game.
"I said, 'Thank you,'" he said.