KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Missouri quarterback James Franklin couldn’t do much of anything for much of Saturday’s game with Tennessee. By the end of the day, he couldn’t be stopped.
Andrew Baggett kicked a 35-yard field goal in the fourth overtime period as Missouri rallied from a two-touchdown halftime deficit to beat Tennessee 51-48. But it was Franklin who sparked the comeback, throwing four touchdown passes — all in the final minute of regulation or overtime.
Franklin’s biggest play came in the final minute of regulation.
Missouri (5-5, 2-5 Southeastern Conference) faced fourth-and-12 when Franklin scrambled around before finding Dorial Green-Beckham all alone in the left corner of the end zone for a game-tying 25-yard touchdown pass with 47 seconds remaining.
“It was pretty funny because right before that, he told me — the defense probably could have seen what he was doing — he put his hand up and he was doing this, this and that,” Franklin said as he motioned how Green-Beckham drew up the route on his hand. “It was funny because that’s what he did, and it worked.”
Tennessee has now lost 13 of its last 14 SEC games over the last two seasons, casting further doubt on the future of Volunteers coach Derek Dooley. With the game tied in the final minute of regulation, Dooley and the Vols (4-6, 0-6) received a chorus of boos when they allowed the clock to run out after failing to gain any yardage on two straight plays.
“I’m hurting because of the game and the kids,” Dooley said. “They played their tail off, man. There’s a lot of negativity, and that comes with the territory. I’m just proud of how they keep going out there and they lay it on the line.”
Each team scored touchdowns on its first two overtime possessions, including a 5-yard run by Tennessee holder Tyler Drummer on a fake field-goal attempt. Both teams reached the end zone again in the third overtime but failed to make their ensuing two-point conversion attempts.
Missouri’s defense finally came through in the fourth overtime when safety Ian Simon broke up Tyler Bray’s fourth-and-3 pass to Zach Rogers from the Missouri 18. Baggett then kicked the field goal that ended this marathon game.
“They were making plays all game,” Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson said. “We just happened to shut them down when we needed to.”
Franklin threw for 2,865 yards and 21 touchdowns and rushed for 981 yards and 15 more scores last year, but he had struggled with injuries and inconsistency this year while Missouri makes the transition from the Big 12 to the SEC. Franklin was coming off a four-interception performance in a 14-7 loss at Florida last week, and he wasn’t much better in the early part of this game.
After going 2-of-8 for 18 yards and an interception in the first half, Franklin ended up throwing for 226 yards and four touchdowns while also rushing for 43 yards.
“It feels better, especially as a team because on both sides of the ball guys made plays,” Franklin said. “I think it feels more like a team win today.”
Kendial Lawrence added two touchdown runs and 153 rushing yards for Missouri (5-5, 2-5 SEC). Bray threw for 404 yards and four touchdowns for Tennessee (4-6, 0-6), while Mychal Rivera compiled a career-high 10 receptions for 129 yards and a touchdown. Missouri and Tennessee had entered the day tied for the NCAA lead with 10 all-time overtime victories each.
“It stings a lot,” Rivera said. “We really worked hard this week. We really wanted to win this game. Things just didn’t go our way.”
Tennessee entered the day having allowed the most points (35.4) and yards (483.1) per game of any team in the SEC. They were coming off a 55-48 victory over Troy in which they allowed 721 yards, the highest single-game total ever by a Tennessee opponent.
Dooley responded by taking a more active role in the defense. He promised major changes, which included having defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri work from the press box for the first time all season.
For one half anyway, the moves paid off better than anyone could have reasonably anticipated.
The Vols outgained Missouri 383-64 in the first half and took a 21-7 lead into the intermission. Missouri’s offense didn’t cross midfield until about 2 ½ minutes remained in the second quarter. The Tigers’ lone first-half score came on Jimmie Hunt’s 87-yard kickoff return.
Then came the second half.
On the first play from scrimmage in the second half, Lawrence delivered a 77-yard touchdown run that cut Tennessee’s lead to 21-14. After Tennessee extended its lead to 28-14, Lawrence added a 1-yard touchdown run later in the third quarter on a drive kept alive by a fourth-and-1 conversion.
“When Kendial made that run, it kind of sparked everyone,” Franklin said. “We realized we still had a chance.”
Missouri finally tied the game in the final minute when Franklin found Green-Beckham all alone in the left corner of the end zone. Earlier in the drive, Franklin had thrown a 17-yard completion to Marcus Lucas on fourth-and-9 from the Tennessee 40.
“Once we got out there and lined up, I saw how far the safety was playing up so I was (thinking) I can beat this guy and get behind him on a fade route,” Green-Beckham said.
Franklin would pretty much get his way the rest of the day.