As part of its SEC Championship game telecast, CBS Sports’ broadcast team had to come up with a play of the year for the participating teams. For Auburn, that was an easy call; for Missouri, not so much.
What the network settled on for Mizzou was its double-pass for a touchdown in the fourth quarter against Georgia on Oct. 12 in Athens. Not only was that play significant for winning the game, but given when it happened, what happened before it and who made the play, it truly was the pivotal point in the Tigers’ season.
“That got them to Atlanta,” said Gary Danielson, college football analyst for CBS, which will televise Saturday’s 4 p.m. game at the Georgia Dome. “When they lost James Franklin and threw the double pass to win the game without their quarterback, that kind of typified their season.”
The Bulldogs, playing without injured tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall and three of their four top receivers, trailed all day only to put themselves in position to win the game early in the fourth quarter. Aaron Murray connected with Chris Conley for a touchdown pass with 12:15 to play to get Georgia within two, and only a failed two-point conversion try prevented the tie. But the Bulldogs had all the momentum.
On the ensuing possession, Missouri was nearing midfield when Franklin was thrown down hard by Georgia’s Jordan Jenkins and Amarlo Herrera at the end of an incomplete pass. Franklin ran another play, but clearly he was hurt, and it was his shoulder. On a third-and-6 play he had to leave the game.
Enter Maty Mauk.
The redshirt freshman quarterback took over and immediately gained 6 yards on a keeper. First down by a nose. Two plays later, he threw what appeared to be a flanker screen across the field. Receiver Bud Sasser caught the ball behind the line of scrimmage and unleashed a 40-yard bomb to L’Damian Washington for a touchdown.
Mauk started the next three games for the Tigers, winning two and narrowly losing one. But the storm was weathered. Franklin returned Nov. 23, and Mizzou is playing in the Georgia Dome.
“I think everybody knows at this level or the NFL level, when you have a starting quarterback who’s having a great year, then all of a sudden you have to put a redshirt freshman in there who hasn’t played much, that’s tough,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “Having a backup quarterback for one-third of your season that’s a redshirt freshman and coming out 3-1, almost 4-0, it’s pretty remarkable. We were very, very fortunate.”
Said Franklin: “It was, I think, kind of a turning point for a lot of us, knowing that we can still succeed and still be great this season.”
Just as delicate as putting in Mauk was the transition of taking him back out. Pinkel surprised many observers when he started Franklin in his first game back. That it came on the road against Ole Miss in a must-win situation made it all the more precarious.
Franklin led the Tigers on a touchdown drive their first possession. They cruised to a 24-10 victory.
“It meant a lot having James back at quarterback,” said Washington, who leads Missouri with 824 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns. “I think it adds a little more confidence to our offense and to our team as a whole. We know how relentless he is. We know what a fighter he is.
“Not taking anything away from Maty Mauk; he came in and did tremendous things as our quarterback. But just having James there … does a lot for my confidence personally and for our team.”
As the Tigers bear down on Atlanta, they once again are Franklin’s team. But together, he and Mauk have given Missouri great quarterback play. The Tigers finished the regular season with a combined 26 touchdowns on 2,991 yards passing, six rushing touchdowns and only six interceptions. Missouri’s 38.8 points per game ranked second to Texas A&M in the SEC.
The potential for disaster was high that October afternoon in Athens. So was the threat of a quarterback controversy a month later.
That could have derailed the Tigers’ season, but Missouri stayed on the tracks, which ran headlong into Atlanta.
“They trusted their coach,” Danielson said. “They knew the finish line was in sight, and they all were going to buy in for the short run. … I think the way Pinkel handled it at the end was a brilliant move. I think it worked. I think it was great strategy, and I think it showed the team that he was loyal to a guy who has done a good job for him.”