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December 1, 2013

Eastbound and down

The low-point of Missouri's season came on Oct. 26.

A 17-point fourth-quarter lead evaporated, ending with a doink off the left upright in the north endzone, sending Missouri to a loss against South Carolina. It tarnished the polish off of a magical 7-0 start.

It sent Missouri on the long path, the hard path, to win the SEC East.

It set the stage for Saturday, for a 28-21 win over Texas A&M, for redemption and vindication and celebration.

Without that loss -- without all the defeats of 2012, too -- this year's Tigers wouldn't be in the position they find themselves now.

Tickets to Atlanta, booked. An SEC Championship in sight. And, depending on how the cards unfold next Saturday, perhaps even more.

The 27-24 double-overtime loss to the Gamecocks kept Missouri watching the standings. A slip-up by South Carolina would give the Tigers breathing room. It never came. Instead, the Gamecocks' sealed Missouri's fate two weeks ago, hanging on to a 19-14 win in their final conference game of the season.

Two games remained for the Tigers, who had reeled off back-to-back dominating wins since the loss on Oct. 26. Missouri would have to win both -- a road game against Ole Miss and a season-finale against Texas A&M -- to clinch the East outright.

Missouri beat the Rebels convincingly, 24-10, a week ago. That set the stage for Saturday's win-or-else finale.

Without the Gamecocks' victory a month ago, Missouri players said they may have struggled with the ramifications of Saturday's game.

"Having that experience against South Carolina, I think that was really good for us," Missouri quarterback James Franklin said.

Franklin didn't play in that game a month ago, still recovering from a shoulder sprain suffered against Georgia. But he said his teammates change since that evening when things fell apart in the fourth quarter and overtime, preparing them for Saturday.

What looked like a possible easy win against a team with little left to play for besides bowl-positioning turned into a tight game throughout its duration. Missouri's offense struggled to find a rhythm early on. The Tigers' offense totaled 48 yards in the first quarter, rushing nine times for 32 yards.

The Aggies, likewise, started slow, but they broke through on a 29-yard touchdown run by Tra Carson midway through the quarter. Missouri's offense seemed to find a rhythm in the second quarter, tying the game on a 38-yard touchdown pass by Franklin to Dorial Green-Beckham.

Johnny Manziel, bottled up to that point, answered the Tigers' score. He narrowly got a pass off before getting hit by Michael Sam, connecting with Derel Walker for a 32-yard touchdown to re-take the lead.

Missouri missed a 47-yard field goal as time expired in the second quarter. For the first time all season, the Tigers trailed at the half.

But that South Carolina game prepared the Tigers for this stage.

"When you lose, you don't lose the lesson," guard Max Copeland said. "I'm proud of our team. With things like that, you learn from it, learn how to regroup. We found out what didn't work that first time and you can kind of get your wits about you.

"Those times, mature people handle adversity. They learn from their mistakes."

"No doubt, no doubt, no doubt," L'Damian Washington said about the South Carolina-effect. "We knew we had to put our foot on (Texas A&M's) throats a little bit more. We had to pedal downhill. In that South Carolina game, we kind of relaxed.

"We couldn't let that happen again. If you're gonna lose, lose early in the season. Learn from it and build from it."

Mizzou 28 TexasA&M 21 from PowerMizzou on Vimeo.

So that's what Missouri did. At halftime, the message was simple:

The gameplan works. It's the same game they've played 11 times before. It's all about execution.

"We're OK, man," Copeland said about that halftime talk. "Don't freak out. Don't panic. We know what to do. Let's just go out there and give it everything you got for 30 minutes. That's all you, that's all we ask. Nothing less than everything you got. Nothing more, nothing less than everything you got, man.

"Times of adversity, you just kind of bite your lip and get mental, man."

Missouri came out in the second half with a renewed investment in the ground game, and scored on their first two possessions of the half to take a 21-14 lead. A two-yard touchdown run by Marcus Murphy capped a seven-play, 75-yard drive. On the ensuing possession, Franklin found Washington in the endzone for a diving five-yard touchdown, a play that was initially ruled incomplete before being overturned after a review.

Said Copeland, "I think we came together, all 11 of us, saying, 'Hey, whatever your job is, get it done and make sure someone gets in the ground.'"

Then that adversity struck again, the moment and stage seemingly catching up to the Tigers as it did on Oct. 26. Missouri's offense went flaccid. On Texas A&M's first drive of the fourth quarter, the Aggies went 98 yards in nine plays, scoring on a seven-yard run by Ben Malena to tie the game.

Yet Missouri's defense settled down -- "It's Coach Stec, he's always with us, he never gives up on us," linebacker Kentrell Brothers said. The defense, quietly one of the most dominating units in the SEC, forced three straight punts. Texas A&M ran nine total plays, netting one yard.

"The mistakes that we're making were on us," Brothers remembered defensive coordinator Dave Steckel saying. "It wasn't anything they (Texas A&M) were doing.

"After we did that, we just held them to one yard."

In between, Henry Josey broke free for a 57-yard touchdown run on third-and-1, a play that Henson hoped would get two yards and a first down.

Like it did a week ago, the defense got Missouri's offense the ball back. And, like it did a week ago in Oxford, the offense ran the remaining minutes off the clock, starting off the celebration of an unlikely SEC East championship. It set off a rather organized, polite storming-of-the-field, and after a few minutes, Ray Charles' "Georgia On My Mind" blared from the loudspeakers.

It was a fitting ending in so many ways for the Tigers' season, which became about respect and dignity rather than just wins and losses.

"I wouldn't call it redemption, no," Boehm said. "It's just two great football teams. It feels awesome, it feels great, but it's just two great football teams going out there and doing their thing."

For the first time all season, some players -- and even Pinkel himself -- didn't downplay the importance of the journey.

"It's surreal," said Pinkel.

At the base level of that road from 5-7 to 11-1, from preseason afterthought to potentially playing their way into the national title discussion, was an even more unlikely group of players.

Walk-on Max Copeland, from Billings, Mont., who's helped anchor a dominating offensive line that set the stage for this season, wouldn't even muse on what it all means.

"There's still a lot of season left, so I'm not going to start hanging my hat yet," Copeland said. "It's not time to hang my hat. It's time to look to next week."

Two-star receiver L'Damian Washington, who overcame heartbreak and tragedy after the death of both of his parents before he was out of high school. He became the sounding board for Missouri's season, boldly claiming 11 wins during SEC Media Days four months ago.

He wants people to remember that he made this prediction.

"Not in a 'Haha, look at what we did"-type stuff," Washington said. "But whenever people laugh at your about something, you want to go out and get that feeling in your stomach, as a competitor.

"OK, I'm gonna show you. And it feels great."

Most fitting at all, perhaps, in this motley crew of characters is senior quarterback James Franklin, who's gone from prized recruit to potentially great to a pariah, only to come back this season and help set up the resurgance of an explosive offense.

The boos and questions and criticism of a year ago seem long removed. He walked onto Faurot Field for the last time as a player, greeted by his parents, sister, grandmother and girlfriend, along with other friends. The fans greeted him with a loud ovation.

But like the team itself, Franklin can't forget last season, a year that's motivated him and turned him into a quiet, collected player that his team has mimicked. So after the game, in the celebration, he went to the Rock M to get his souvenir from his playing days. Unlike most teammates, who try to find the biggest rock they can carry, Franklin picked a small one, no more than a few inches in diameter.

"I figured this sums it up for me," Franklin said.

"It's a small, dinked up little rock. I feel like, when I got here, maybe I was bigger and got chipped down a little bit. Down and down.

"And then got down to this. But this is all I need."

That's all this Missouri team needed. It went inward after 2012. It went inward after a potentially back-breaking loss to South Carolina.

Now, it's going eastbound and down.

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