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October 1, 2013

Clutch when it counts



Missouri hasn't had to be clutch often this season.

Through four games, the Tigers have trailed for 17:47 out of a possible 240 minutes of game time. Against Arkansas State, Missouri trailed in the second half for the first time all season. That lasted for 6:21, until the Tigers took a 20-16 lead on a touchdown pass from James Franklin to L'Damian Washington, ending a nine play, 94-yard drive.

Those "clutch" situations -- close games in the second half -- haven't occurred much this season. But when they have, Missouri has answered.



Against Toledo, Missouri saw its lead cut to one point with 4:22 left in the third quarter. On the ensuing offensive possession, Missouri drove 75 yards in ten plays, taking up the rest of the third quarter, to extend its lead to 31-23. The Tigers scored again on the next possession, 44 yards in ten plays, to ice the game.

Against Arkansas State, Missouri took the lead at 20-16 and never looked backed. Including that 94-yard drive, Missouri scored on each of its final four possessions before taking a knee to end the game.

In the two other games this season, Missouri didn't face much of a challenge in the second half, but still answered whenever it needed. Murray State took an early 7-0 lead. Missouri scored on its very next possession, in 44 seconds. The Racers scored again later in the first quarter. The Tigers again scored quickly on its next possession and finished the game with 51 unanswered points.

Indiana tied the game against Missouri midway through the second quarter. Missouri scored on its next drive, and then followed it up with a defensive touchdown by Kony Ealy. After finding itself in a tie game, the Tigers scored 24 unanswered points to coast to a victory.

The players so far cite a less-than-tangible reason for that ability to come up with points when they need to.

"It's a great question," left guard Max Copeland said. "Really, it's our heart, our spirit, man. Our competitive spirit. When it's time, backs against the wall like you said, and it's time to zig or zag, that kind of competitive drive deep inside of us says, 'Let's go.' Whatever you've got in you, let's go, let's get it done so we can win. Collectively, that's how our spirit is with this team."

""I think for some of the guys, when it comes to crunch time, guys are really stepping up," Franklin said. "Sometimes it's hard to get into that mode whenever you have a bad play here or there, you have a mistake and you get down on yourself."

It's an odd situation, in that Missouri's offense has been very balanced throughout each game yet the Tigers haven't been able to pull away until late in two of them. Missouri has scored 89 first-half points. In the second half, that number is 93. Teams have stuck around more in the first half, however, because Missouri's point advantage is less in the first two quarters than the final two. In the first quarter, Missouri outscored opponents by 21. In the second quarter, the number is 12.

In the third and fourth quarter, Missouri has outscored opponents by 56 points.

"I think we're just executing well," offensive coordinator Josh Henson said. "Obviously, we're not executing great because we didn't in the first half. We scored real fast. It's kind of weird, because when we scored, we scored fast. We missed a field goal, we had a fumble. We had miscommunication on another drive that could have been a big play for us, potentially. I think what I'm most proud of is when our back is against the wall, when we need to respond, we've responded. Obviously that will get tougher as we go through the SEC, but I think it's good that you're doing it."

That perception of a better second-half offense than first-half offense has as much to do with the defense. But there's still a desire to get out of the gates faster and put games away earlier. Again, Henson returned to his favorite buzzword since becoming OC at Missouri. More often than not, he's shied away from saying what his offense does and will do differently. The success or failure comes down to one word.

"Just execute better," Henson said. "Gameplan-wise, we didn't come in at halftime and go, 'Boy, we didn't have enough people to block them' or 'Boy, we didnt...' --none of those things. We just need to execute some of the plays we called."

Another possible reason for the success in late-and-close situations in this make-up of the team. Missouri now has an experienced offensive line that played plenty together in 2012. The receivers, including Dorial Green-Beckham, are a year older. The Tigers have a senior quarterback in Franklin who learned from mistakes in 2011 and 2012, and who has taken over the two close games in the second half.

Throw in two running backs who have been on campus for four years, and the Tigers don't have a young offense by any definition of the word.

"We stay calm, we keep our composure. Sometimes it takes a little time for these things to unfold your way," Copeland said.

There's room to improve, and it's going to be more difficult to overcome those early mistakes late in the game during SEC play. Copeland knows this.

"Ideally, you don't want this to happen as late as it did, but you've got to capitalize on big plays, pour gas into the fire," Copeland said. "That's a big aspect of our offense."

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