Franklin’s surprise return gives Mizzou a lift

COLUMBIA, Mo. – There’s intrigue in a drag toward mediocrity, even if the stagger includes a limp. Missouri earned its first Southeastern Conference victory Saturday, beating hapless Kentucky 33-10 at Memorial Stadium, but junior quarterback James Franklin’s return late in the third quarter added another twist in this soap opera of a season.

Here’s how the latest rewrite of the script occurred: Freshman Corbin Berkstresser seemed lost for most of the afternoon, completing 10 of 18 passes for 71 yards with two interceptions against a defense that made Arkansas look like Alabama by allowing 49 points on Oct. 13; Franklin, back for the first time since spraining his left MCL in the first quarter of a loss to Vanderbilt on Oct. 6, became an emotional piston while completing 6 of 9 passes for 16 yards.

To be clear: Franklin, Missouri’s obvious answer at quarterback, wasn’t healthy enough to start against an SEC East bottom-feeder. To be clear: He was healthy enough to trot onto the field with the Tigers gripping a 17-10 lead with butter fingers in a game that featured 10 fumbles.

To be clear: Little seems clear about this program.

“We knew he could play with great restriction,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said of Franklin. “He got the OK from the medical staff. Corbin was struggling – not the first quarterback here who has ever struggled at all. He won’t be the last.”

Berkstresser won’t be, and in the end, Pinkel’s roll of the dice proved inconsequential. The Tigers (4-4, 1-4 SEC) are two victories shy of extending their bowl streak to eight years. Franklin went unhurt in his cameo, though he said afterward that, in a perfect scenario, he would have rather avoided live fire for another week.

Who said there’s no drama between teams that entered posting a goose egg in the win column after a combined nine league games? Who said this would be simple?

“I would just kind of rather play it (safe),” Franklin said. “I’m not saying that I would have got hurt if I would have started. But there’s a chance if I hurt it more that I’m out for a couple more games instead of just resting and being able to play the rest of the season.

“How it worked out, I think it was fine. I didn’t really do too much running-wise or throwing-wise – so they definitely protected me a little bit.”

Franklin’s return showed the urgency involved with beating Kentucky. Because of an embarrassing loss to Vanderbilt, Missouri’s task in November is this: Scratch out two victories in a remaining schedule that includes trips to Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M, with a home contest against Syracuse included in the bunch.

The Volunteers and Orange appear vulnerable, but this hobbled Mizzou team can’t count any foe as a pushover. A loss to Kentucky would have erased even more room for error.

“Yeah, it does,” said Missouri senior left tackle Elvis Fisher, when asked if Franklin’s return showed the importance of sealing the victory Saturday. “We put James in there – we wouldn’t put anybody in the game that’s not ready to go. So obviously, they felt he was ready to go. I think he was pretty good. We needed to win this game. We need to get back on the winning track. There’s still a lot of stuff we need to accomplish.”

Top among the tasks: See Franklin return at full strength. Afterward, Pinkel said he discussed a scenario Thursday for the quarterback’s comeback with offensive coordinator David Yost. The plan was simple: If Berkstresser struggled Saturday, Franklin would receive notice a series in advance that he would be tapped to enter the game.

It’s debatable whether the move was wise – What if Franklin had sustained further injury? What if the vision had backfired? – but let’s be careful not to overstate the quarterback’s handprint on the victory. Yes, he calmed the Tigers’ offense after a weak-kneed first three quarters. But an awakened rushing attack – they finished with 186 yards on the ground – was more to credit for their best production in an SEC contest.

Still, there’s something to be said for proven leadership’s return. If Berkstresser was the sweaty-palm substitute teacher, Franklin was the tenured professor, calm and cool.

Experience matters. Confidence matters more.

“I think that gave our offense a little bit of a lift,” Pinkel said. “I think that’s natural. That’s nothing against Corbin. I think it’s just natural. The good news is he made it through, and he was not hit at all.”

Added Missouri senior running back Kendial Lawrence, who had 108 yards on 23 carries with two touchdowns: “Just seeing him wanting to be out there and for the coaches telling him that it was OK for him to go out there and compete with us – it’s really lifting. … Just James knowing the overall picture of the thing – I guess he’s a little more experienced than Corbin. Corbin just doesn’t know all the things to look for.”

Missouri coaches thought so too, and it led to a Franklin’s surprise return.

Expect the unexpected.

Who said this ride would be predictable?

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.