Tigers out-duel Volunteers in Rocky Top thriller

After four overtimes, quarterback James Franklin led his team with four touchdown passes in the 51-48 win.

Senior receiver T.J. Moe celebrates after Missouri's 51-48 victory over Tennessee in Knoxville on Saturday. The Tigers got their first Southeastern Conference road win after four overtimes. Tara Sripunvoraskul / The Daily Beacon

James Franklin dropped back. He saw nothing. He scanned right. Still nothing. He rolled left. There, all alone in the west corner of Neyland Stadium’s north end zone, was Dorial Green-Beckham. Right where he said he’d be.

The junior quarterback flung the ball in the direction of his freshman wide receiver, who, with both feet inbounds, hauled in the game-tying pass before falling out of bounds with time in regulation draining in Knoxville, Ten.

It was just how Green-Beckham drew it up.

“Right before that (play) he (Green-Beckham) told me that the defense probably saw him, but he put his hand up and he was doing this and doing that,” Franklin said, re-enacting Green-Beckham’s hand motions. “It’s funny, but it ended up working.”

Green-Beckham confirmed his line of scrimmage improvisation.

“I showed him that I was running like a slant and then an out type route," Green-Beckham said. "I told him I was going to shoot right up the sidelines and sit. I did it, he checked on it and he let me know that he was watching me so when that happened I saw that it was going to be open once the play was going and I sat there in the back of the end zone and looked for him. He saw me and made the play.”

For Franklin, the play call was reminiscent of the final play of last week’s game against Florida. Aside from the end result, the only other difference is that three receivers lined up to his left instead of his right. Franklin was initially looking for junior Marcus Lucas, but eventually found Green-Beckham.

Four overtime sessions later, Tiger players gleefully celebrated in the middle of the field just seconds after freshman kicker Andrew Baggett’s 35-yard field goal – the first game clinching kick of his life – sailed through the uprights.

Missouri was victorious on the road for the first time in Southeastern Conference play, having stunned the host Tennessee Volunteers (4-6, 0-6 SEC) 51-48 en route to recording its fifth win of the season.

“We always talk about the only quarter you can win a game in is the fourth quarter and we do it really for games like this,” coach Gary Pinkel said.

A Tiger victory was a seemingly preposterous proposition at the half. Missouri was being outgained 383-64, had amassed four first downs compared to Tennessee’s 20, and had completed 20 fewer passes than the Volunteers as the Tigers trailed 21-7.

Through 30 minutes of play, the Tigers had seemingly reached rock bottom in Rocky Top.

And then, a spark.

Senior tailback Kendial Lawrence took the handoff from Franklin on the first play of the second half and darted 77 yards untouched to the end zone to narrow the deficit to seven.

Not even two minutes later, the Volunteers countered with a touchdown of their own to make it a 28-14 game.

The Tigers needed an answer. They got one when redshirt sophomore receiver Bud Sasser made a leaping 40-yard catch at the Tennessee 8-yard line.

“We needed that bad,” Pinkel said.

Three plays later, Lawrence’s second rushing touchdown of the game pulled Missouri back within seven.

The game’s next score would be Franklin’s tying toss to Green-Beckham. It was Franklin’s first touchdown since Green-Beckham last reached the end zone Sept. 29 against Central Florida.

As it turns out, Franklin and Green-Beckham were just getting started.

Franklin ended each of Missouri’s first three overtime possessions with a touchdown throw, including another to Green-Beckham, whose first catch of the game was the equalizer late in the fourth quarter.

The sudden offensive explosion was a far cry from its deplorable first half showing.

Facing a Tennessee defense ranked 120th in yards against, Missouri was averaging less then three yards per play and had completed two passes. But then, slowly but surely, the passing attack found its long-lost rhythm. A leaping grab by Sasser here, another impressive grab by Sasser there. A completion with pressure bearing down to Lucas for a fourth down conversion. Franklin’s confidence grew with each successful attempt.

“In overtime we looked like we were the most potent offense in the country,” Pinkel said. “And that’s just momentum and confidence.”

Statistically, Tennessee’s offense had the greater day. Volunteer quarterback Tyler Bray was completed 37 of 54 passes for 404 yards and four scores. Tight end Mychal Rivera had a career day, hauling in 10 of those passes for 129 yards and a touchdown. Receiver Justin Hunter made nine catches for 141 yards and a touchdown of his own.

Saturday’s 585-yard performance marked the fifth time the Volunteers eclipsed the 500-yard mark this season.

And, due in large part to Franklin’s emergence, it was all for naught.

“I’m so happy for him, he’s a warrior,” Pinkel said. “He’s been through so much. Everybody wants to discard that ... It was a rough first half, but when it was time to make plays he delivered.”

Franklin finished 19 of 32 with 226 yards, four touchdowns and one interception, doubling his touchdown total for the season. Lawrence finished with a career-high 153 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries. Green-Beckham had the two touchdown catches for 35 yards.

Did the late game heroics give the much-maligned Franklin the monkey-off-the-back feeling?

“Not too much,” Franklin said. “Guys made plays and stepped up. It was really a team win today.”

A team win that had redemption written all over it. For Franklin’s overthrows on Missouri’s final drive last week. For Green-Beckham, dropping a would-be touchdown earlier in the fourth quarter. And the team as whole, atoning for its lackluster first half of football.

Saturday’s thrilling victory gave Missouri five on the season, placing them one win away from eligibility for an eighth consecutive bowl appearance with two games remaining.

“There’s a light shining at the end of the tunnel,” Pinkel said. “It got a little brighter.”

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