COLUMBIA, Mo. – Afterward, when time had expired – after a bizarre night ended with backup quarterback Corbin Berkstresser cupping the final snap and James Franklin walking toward mid-field in full uniform never having played – another watch began. The “M-I-Z” chant echoed, the fight song rang, players screamed with students behind a sideline and celebratory hollers lifted from the home locker room.
All that happened after Missouri’s 24-20 victory over Arizona State on Saturday at Memorial Stadium, but the real intrigue comes next. The real intrigue will be to see how Franklin, who missed the game with an inflamed bursa sac in his right shoulder, responds in the weeks ahead after the Tigers experienced their first midseason quarterback switch since 2001.
Late Saturday, Franklin stood behind the stadium and appeared to be in good spirits. He was his usual, extroverted self. He smiled. He wanted to sign autographs. He planned to meet his parents soon.
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Will he be ready next week, when the Tigers travel to South Carolina for their first Southeastern Conference road test?
“Yes, sir,” Franklin told FOXSportsMidwest.com. “I’ll be good to go next week.”
That’s good for the Tigers, who survived the Sun Devils’ fourth-quarter surge that almost sent Mizzou tumbling to 1-2. For Missouri, the day was strange from the start: Speculation swirled Friday that Franklin’s status was in question after aggravating the right shoulder, which underwent surgery in March, during the second quarter of a loss to Georgia last week. On Saturday, he participated in pregame stretches and threw in warmups with offensive coordinator David Yost never more than a short distance away.
But come the first series, Franklin stood on the sideline in a black baseball cap as Berkstresser – a 6-foot-3, 230-pound freshman – took the field. The young signal-caller from Lee’s Summit, Mo., completed 21 of 41 passes for 198 yards, doing enough for Missouri to claim a critical non-conference test.
But could Franklin have played?
That was the lingering question after Gary Pinkel’s postgame remarks. It’s fair to wonder. Consider this answer from the Missouri coach when asked about Franklin’s condition: “It was just too painful for him, and he didn’t want to play. Between him and the medical staff – they make those decisions. I don’t make those decisions.”
Or this: “We told Corbin (Friday) and possibly throughout the week that he might have to play. I was hoping James could play, but he didn’t feel like he could do it.”
Those were awkward moments. Statements like, “I was hoping James could play, but he didn’t feel like he could do it,” hint at a difference in opinion between Franklin and Pinkel. It must be mentioned that the coach refused to call out his quarterback’s strength, saying, “I don’t have questions about his toughness at all. We saw him play last year.”
Still, it’s not a stretch to think that the coach would have preferred to see Franklin tough it out and take the field. The quarterback practiced a light amount Tuesday, and he missed the sessions Wednesday and Thursday with preservation in mind. It’s early, but there was plenty at stake Saturday.
Consider: The Tigers were a week removed from a charged SEC debut. They coped with a patchwork offensive line after injuries have ravaged the group since preseason camp. And next Saturday, the Tigers face a top SEC East contender in one of the league’s most frothing settings.
So urgency can be expected. In fact, it should be required.
Challenges? Missouri knows them well.
“Every single play is a different challenge, every single game is a different challenge, every single series is a different challenge,” said Missouri safety Kenronte Walker, who sealed Missouri’s victory by intercepting Taylor Kelly in the end zone with 38 seconds left.
“We’ve been taught to think positive. That’s what we’ve been taught all summer, all spring – to think positive. … Everything has been taught to us, and we’ve got to go out there and do it.”
Yes, because this season has become about adaptation in more ways than one. It has become about adapting to the SEC move – the Tigers are three weeks from entering the teeth of their league schedule – and adjusting to the new reality despite myriad injuries. There’s no Henry Josey in the backfield to provide elite burst. There’s no Elvis Fisher to provide sixth-year senior leadership on the offensive line – at least for a month while he recovers from an MCL ailment. There’s no comparable alternative to Franklin, which became obvious when Berkstresser struggled with his command (his throws missed high and low) and Yost dialed-up a conservative approach.
“Yeah, it was hurting him,” Missouri wide receiver T.J. Moe said of Franklin. Moe finished with a game-high 88 yards on eight catches. “You don’t push something like that. We rolled with ‘13,’ (Berkstresser’s number) and it worked out pretty well.”
Missouri made it work Saturday – barely – but the situation was far from ideal. Yes, the offense did enough. Yes, the defense delivered a stop when it was needed most.
With Franklin’s absence, though, questions will follow throughout the season: Will the quarterback’s shoulder stay healthy? Can he handle the rigors of the SEC? Will this issue arise again? If so, will he play through the pain?
“I don’t like that stuff,” Franklin told FOXSportsMidwest.com when asked about his thoughts on painkillers.
“I don’t like dealing with that kind of stuff.”
There’s plenty for Missouri to deal with moving forward: acclimation against new conference foes, plugging young players into pressure roles, healing others so that they can return and make an impact. There’s intrigue, lots of it, and it’s only September.
Even Pinkel found reason to make light of it all.
“It’s just a lot of fun,” he said with a wry smile, when speaking about the adversity. “It’s just a blast man.”
Add Franklin’s condition to the mix. Saturday was strange, but it only gets more interesting from here.