COLUMBIA, Mo. – He stood, sidelined again, as a spectator in the final seconds of a loss that brought more worry than any before this fall, and James Franklin limped forward much like his team.
The Missouri junior quarterback played two series Saturday, leading to six points, but a strained left MCL sustained early in the first quarter of the Tigers’ 19-15 defeat to Vanderbilt produced this grim reality: A season that began with focus on a Southeastern Conference transition could become a trainwreck, and Franklin’s value is more obvious than ever.
The quarterback shuffled toward an end zone in a black T-shirt and matching sweatpants, out at least another week, and nothing about Missouri’s season appeared certain. A male voice over the public-address system boomed, “Join us next Saturday when your Tigers take on Alabama!” and the message invoked dread.
“There’s no magic, at least I don’t have it,” said Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, who saw Franklin miss a victory over Arizona State on Sept. 15 because of an inflamed bursa sac in the player’s right shoulder. “I’ve been here before. You don’t like it. But you get back to work, and that’s what we’ll do.”
But where will they go?
Consider that Saturday was supposed to produce history. Missouri, hobbled and humbled after routs to Georgia and South Carolina and narrow triumphs over Arizona State and Central Florida, arrived at Memorial Stadium as seven-point favorites against the Commodores – the SEC’s freckled orphan. Vanderbilt had scored no more than 13 points against teams not named “Presbyterian” in its first four games. It was expected to play patty-cake with Kentucky to avoid the SEC East cellar. It was thought to be a possible exhale moment for Missouri in a season of few, a throw rug stained by boot prints from SEC powers that would serve as an accomplice in the Tigers’ first league victory.
Then Franklin’s knee smacked against the helmet of senior safety Eric Samuels during a 23-yard run to Vanderbilt’s 13-yard line. Then Missouri’s best hope to finish above .500 and extend a seven-year bowl streak left the field and was ushered to the locker room, never to return to the huddle. Then Missouri freshman Corbin Berkstresser, who could grow into a fine signal caller one day, threw with the accuracy of an unsighted rifle before finishing with 9 of 30 completions for 189 yards and one touchdown.
The entire night, appropriately, served as confirmation of Franklin’s worth. Some in Missouri and throughout the SEC unfairly questioned his toughness after he refused to take a painkiller that would have allowed him to play against the Sun Devils. Mixed stats against South Carolina and Central Florida – he completed a combined 30 of 48 passes for 349 yards with one touchdown and an interception – increased the catcalls for Berkstresser’s promotion.
Sometimes, the No. 2 quarterback is the most popular figure on a roster because his warts are unknown. Meanwhile, Franklin has shown plenty in his tenure as the Tigers’ starter since he was tapped to succeed Blaine Gabbert in 2011.
He leaves himself open to criticism because he doesn’t have Chase Daniel’s bombastic personality or the former field general’s command of the spread offense. He leaves himself open to criticism because he doesn’t have Gabbert’s NFL-ready body or cannon right arm. He leaves himself open to criticism because, above all, he’s the chosen leader of one of the weakest teams in recent program history.
But Saturday’s mess against an inferior foe revealed this much: Franklin, as imperfect as he is, stands as Missouri’s best option to navigate the choppy waters ahead. The matchup next week against Alabama won’t be pretty – a Crimson Tide victory of 35 points or more looks possible – and Berkstresser’s lesions likely will be on display again with fresh bruises.
“I’m sure it’s frustrating to him and to the team too,” Berkstresser said of Franklin. “But that’s football, and you’ve got to roll with the punches and play how it is. You’ve got to expect that at any moment, that anybody can gut it out.”
Halfway through the season, that’s Missouri’s key task. Gut it out. Get a few victories where you can. Learn and evolve, lick your wounds – there are many – and regroup for Round 2.
So the transitional year’s legacy remains to be seen. This initial foray into the SEC is about making the most of pauses within the gauntlet, and Vanderbilt represented a chance. Kentucky (Oct. 27) and Syracuse (Nov. 17) appear to be the only others left, which makes losing to the Commodores all the more costly.
Can Missouri spring an upset at Florida on Nov. 3? Can the Tigers slip by Tennessee in Knoxville a week later? What about winning at Texas A&M for a third consecutive year on Nov. 24?
None of those are guarantees, or even likely Missouri victories at this point. But Franklin’s return would enhance the Tigers’ prospects. Often maligned and largely misunderstood, he’s Missouri’s best chance to salvage what’s left of a campaign teetering above a cliff.
Fall back or crawl forward? Franklin is the best option to advance.
“Obviously, James is a great quarterback,” Missouri senior punter Trey Barrow said. “Corbin is a great quarterback too. Whoever is in there, we just need to make plays and come together as a team. … You can’t really think about (the injuries). You just have to play it game by game.”
Game by game – a simple task but daunting all the same in this season of adjustment.
Game by game – each one that Franklin misses will sting more.