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December 1, 2013

Sunday Notebook

WELCOME BACK, WATERS: In an unlikely season, it was fitting that Missouri's trip to Atlanta was sealed by an unlikely player.

Henry Josey's 57-yard fourth-quarter touchdown run gave the Tigers a lead they would never relinquish, but after getting the ball back on a punt with 2:01 remaining, Missouri still had to run the clock out and prevent Johnny Manziel from getting the ball back.

The Aggies' still had two timeouts remaining, and despite Manziel clearly not playing at 100-percent health, the danger was still there.

Facing a second-and-seven after a 3-yard run by Josey, Missouri came out of a Texas A&M timeout with three receivers to the right and tight end Eric Waters attached to the left of the line, alongside offensive tackle Justin Britt.

Missouri used to be known as Tight End University, as the Tigers' made a living with athletic pass-catchers at a hybrid tight end/slot position in 2007, 2008 and 2010. In those years, Missouri tight ends produced, on average, 112 receptions a year, obviously bolstered by having Chase Coffman and Martin Rucker in 2007, and then Coffman and Michael Egnew catching 90 passes a piece in 2008 and 2010, respectively.

But since 2010, the tight end numbers have dropped every year. Egnew caught 50 passes in 2011. In 2012, Waters was the lone tight end to catch a pass, reeling in four for 27 yards all year.

(This, obviously, does not take into account that in previous iterations of Missouri's offense, the Y-receiver was a tight end. Danario Alexander caught 113 passes from that position in 2009.)

This season, Missouri's tight ends were largely relegated to blockers, to an old-fashioned role in Josh Henson's spread offense. Through 11 games, Waters caught seven passes for 56 yards and one touchdown.

But on this fourth-quarter play on Saturday, with time stopped after a timeout and needing one first-down to seal a win, Josh Henson called Waters' number.

Franklin faked a hand-off and rolled to his left. Waters leaked out from his blocking position, and with the rest of the offense going toward the right, Franklin threw an easy pass to the wide-open senior tight end.

He took the catch 16 yards for a first down and, after another first-down run by Russell Hansbrough and an Aggies' timeout, the game ended with two kneel-downs.

During the offseason, an increased role by Missouri's tight ends was a topic of discussion. We, the media, focused on redshirt freshman Sean Culkin, who rose to No. 1 on the depth chart after spring practice.

In the end, though, Waters' skill as a blocker won him the job. But on the game-sealing play, his unexpected role as a receiver did the trick.

"It's just unexpected," Waters said. "It's a good feeling to have when the coach relies on you to get a first down and seal the game. Something different. It's the greatest feeling in the world. Coach Henson, he coached his tail off and to call something unexpected like that on both sides.

"We weren't expecting it, defense sure wasn't expecting it. They thought they were going to get a sack. So thankful for that. It's the most awesome feeling you can have at the end of a big, huge game like that, the game that seals your fate to go to the SEC title game like that."

Missouri has used that play during the season, most recently against Mississippi, but Henson said the team didn't practice it in the week leading up to Saturday's game. But that late in the game, Henson said it was set up to work.

"Looking at the first play, we ran zone, it just looked like ... it would be there," Henson said. "It also gave us the options to maybe get James on the edge to run. James made a great throw, Eric made a great catch and run after."

JOHNNY, STOPPED: Missouri's defense has been one of the biggest surprises this season and it may have played its most impressive game of the year on Saturday.

There's no question that Johnny Manziel was banged up. He didn't throw downfield often, settling for check-downs and quick throws. He took a few big hits early on, and Texas A&M had to call a timeout at one point to let him shake off the cobwebs after one such blow.

Early in the game, he also was shaking his throwing hand after some plays, a rumored thumb injury seeming to bother him.

But, the Tigers still held Manziel to fewest total yards in his 24 career games as a starter (216). His only game with less came in the season opener this year, where he played the second half against Rice after a first-half suspension.

It was a far cry from Missouri's hapless showing against Manziel in last year's season finale, when he went for 439 total yards and five touchdowns in a 59-29 win over the Tigers.

And, consider this, too: Missouri stopped Manziel on Saturday with largely the same cast of characters it had in 2012. Six starters from that 2012 game started last night, including 3/4 of last year's starting offensive line and 3/5 of last year's starting secondary. The only big difference was at linebacker, where both of last year's starters (Will Ebner, Zaviar Gooden) were gone.

Going even deeper than that, Missouri played eight more players who saw substantial time in the 2012 game (Ian Simon, Kentrell Brothers, Darvin Ruise, Matt White, Markus Golden, Andrew Wilson, Shane Ray, Lucas Vincent). Missouri's entire 11 defensive starters on Saturday all played last year against Texas A&M, where Manziel couldn't be stopped.

The Tigers' defense lost a first-round draft pick (Sheldon Richardson) and a third-round draft pick (Gooden) and got exponentially better this year. Obviously, the Tigers became a well-rounded team in 2013 because of a healthy offensive line, the return of James Franklin and a strong run game, but Missouri's defense had its best effort on Saturday night, almost entirely with the same players who couldn't stop the eventual Heisman winner in 2012.

"I think we got him off-sync a little bit," Gary Pinkel said following the game. "The coverage was good, at times, too. It forced him to run out of there. You're playing good coverage and then it's just a matter of not letting him get up the middle, because he can do so much damage or find some people open, which he did do."

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