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January 4, 2014

Saying goodbye



ARLINGTON -- When's the right time to say goodbye?

Is it when someone isn't useful anymore? When there's someone shinier and more attractive coming down the road?

Or is it when there's a chance for a proper send-off, for closure and a bow and pat on the back? For well-wishes and thanks and see you on the other side?

There's no good answer to that first question. At least, there was none on Friday night, in Missouri's 41-31 win over Oklahoma State in the AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic.



James Franklin, in his final college game, struggled. The month-long lay-off seemed to affect Franklin, along with the entire offense. Dropped passes, missed blocks and overthrows showed that Missouri's 2013 efficiency didn't carry over into the New Year.

Of course, this all comes back to Franklin. It always does, and -- for better or worse -- it should. Franklin is QB1, both on the depth chart and on his jersey. When things go poorly, he's the one shouldering the blame. In AT&T Stadium, things went poorly more often than not for Franklin and Missouri's offense.

Franklin finished 15-of-40 for 174 yards. He threw an interception. He fumbled twice, on a botched hand-off to Henry Josey and then later on a failed option pitch to Josey.

What made those numbers look worse -- and they didn't need much help -- is that when back-up Maty Mauk entered the game for one series in the second quarter, he excelled. Mauk ran the ball three times for 73 yards, including back-to-back runs of 35 and 34 yards. He completed two passes for 32 yards, culminating in a 24-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Lucas that went as close to a defender's grasp as a pass can get without being picked off or deflected.

Mauk's entry was a classic "Thursday Decision" by Pinkel, which because of the shortened week, came on Wednesday. When Mauk re-entered the game for a series in the third quarter, immediately after Franklin's first fumble resulted in a touchdown drive for Oklahoma State, it looked like a career was coming to a close while another was continuing its ascent.

That belief was wrong. Mauk's second-half appearance, without any of the production of the first half, was another decision made prior to the game. For better or worse, Pinkel was sticking with James Franklin.

"He's won a lot of clutch games," Pinkel said. "You go back to his sophomore year. You go back to last year, this year. I think you generally go with experience."

In the end, it wasn't Franklin who will be credited with this win. Josey earned offensive MVP honors, running for 92 yards and three touchdowns, including the go-ahead score with 3:08 remaining. Michael Sam's strip-sack of Clint Chelf with under a minute left, and the ensuing recovery and 73-yard touchdown return by Shane Ray iced the game for the Tigers.

Franklin's biggest contribution to the win came on the penultimate play of Missouri's final touchdown drive. He scrambled to his left, and floated a perfect pass down the sideline to Dorial Green-Beckham for a gain of 27 yards to Oklahoma State's 16 yard line.

"He's resilient, man," receiver L'Damian Washington said. "His confidence is never rattled. He's a a trooper, and whenever you have a guy like that leading your group, you can't help but to be satisfied."

Josey scored on the next play. Franklin's throw is a footnote in an ugly game. He now fades into the memory of the game, where it wasn't pretty but Missouri made a handful of plays more than the Cowboys to win in Arlington.

Franklin deserved to make that throw, to have the chance to make that third-down conversion, to set up a touchdown run by a teammate. He deserved to finish what he started, in a season and in a career that have seen their fair share of ups and downs.

Pinkel stuck with his senior. After one of the best statistical games of his career against Auburn that was for naught because of a meltdown on the other side of the ball, Franklin's defense picked him up on Friday. His offense stuck with him, too.

"That's just the kind of player he is," right tackle Mitch Morse said. "No matter how bad people want to rag about this game, he was one of the biggest reasons why we won. He's such a defined leader, and the way he poises himself on and off the field, in regards to just this game right here, kept the offense calm.

"There were definitely some wish-washy times. But just the way he was able to focus on the next play, it helped us focus on the next play, and you can't ask for anything more than this."

"We all struggled, man," left guard Max Copeland said. "When we struggle as an offense, we all struggle together. And when we succeed, when we eat, we eat together. That's how it works, man. And now we're eating -- we're fed. We're fed, man."

Friday was about saying goodbye. A 12-2 season, and probable top-five finish, are over. Another senior class leaves, joined by Kony Ealy and possibly more draft-eligible underclassmen. Among that group is James Franklin, a quarterback that finishes third on Missouri's all-time yardage list, who went 22-9 in games he started and finished without injury in his three years atop the depth chart.

It's this game that shows how Franklin will be remembered. Some will remember the 15-40 performance, the three turnovers. Missouri won in spite of Franklin. Others will remember the most meaningful throw, the 3rd-and-9 completion that set up the go-ahead score in a wild fourth quarter.

Likewise, some will remember the injuries, the inconsistent play. Others will remember the yardage piled up in heaping spoonfuls, the most successful rushing offenses in Pinkel's Missouri tenure, all with Franklin at the helm.

Next year, there will be a new quarterback atop the depth chart. Franklin will go on, most likely getting a look from NFL teams at the very least. New legacies will begin. But one legacy is finished, and that's the legacy of Franklin, the most enigmatic, divisive quarterback in Gary Pinkel's tenure.

What's important is that Franklin got the chance to say goodbye on Friday, and not fade away on the bench. He got the chance to finish what he started, even if it's just for one throw that will fade away as new quarterbacks come and go on Missouri's roster.

There will always be shinier, more attractive quarterbacks on the roster. On every roster. But the player who compared his Missouri career to the "small, dinky rock" he picked up on senior night got a chance to show that faith can be rewarded.

Not all goodbyes are spectacular, ride-off-into-the-Texas-sunset moments. Not all goodbyes are emotional tearjerkers. A fitting goodbye doesn't have to be something memorable.

Sometimes, a goodbye is just a goodbye. By sticking with his senior, Gary Pinkel gave James Franklin the chance to say goodbye with his play on the field. That's the most fitting goodbye of all.


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