Missouri finds its pulse
OXFORD, Miss. -- James Franklin returned as Missouri's starter on Saturday.
It didn't matter.
No. 8-Missouri continued to write the same story line all season -- dominating the line of scrimmage -- to beat 24th-ranked Mississippi 24-10.
Missouri's offense has become a plug-and-place scheme, a shiny set of toys on the perimeter that rotate in and out. At its heart remains the offensive line, a "bunch of fat kids having fun playing in the mud," says guard Max Copeland.
Missouri's defense has become the rock, built around an impressive group of linemen. Even when its back is against the metaphorical wall of the goal line, it stands firm.
Both were on display on Saturday night in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Against Ole Miss, which had gone over 500 yards in its previous four games, the Tigers' defense held the Rebels to 378 total yards. The Tigers' defense held the Rebels to ten points, largely because of resilient stands at the goal line.
Trailing 7-0 with 7:45 remaining in the first quarter, Mississippi's offense drove 85 yards in 16 plays. Quarterback Bo Wallace completed an eight-yard pass to receiver Donte Moncrief for a first-and-goal from Missouri's one-yard line. Instead of buckling, Kentrell Brothers dropped Mark Dodson for a loss of two yards. A false start, caused by Missouri's shifting defensive line, pushed the Rebels back to the seven-yard line. Another completed pass from Wallace, this time to Vince Sanders, set up third-and-goal, back at the one-yard line.
Jaylen Walton ran for no gain, stopped by Andrew Wilson. On the first play of the second quarter, Ole Miss lined up to go for it on fourth down.
Another false start. The Rebels settled for a field goal attempt, which was blocked by defensive tackle Harold Brantley. Missouri used that momentum to run to a 17-3 lead at halftime.
"We prep for that in practice," defensive end Kony Ealy said. "In the offseason, coaches do a great job of making sure we stay keyed in goal-to-go situations."
"We had a couple good stops in the red zone," Brantley said, "Those are amazing. Big momentum-shifters, especially when you're on the road, because three points, seven points, all that can make a difference especially with how close the game was down in the fourth quarter."
"I don't want to say our mindset changes when we get into the redzone," Brantley continued, "but it's something we say whenever we get close to our endzone. All we need is a place to stand. Everybody believes that, and I think that because we're so close as a team and I can rely on the guy next to me to do what he has to do, everybody has a responsibility and the rest just takes care of itself."
"We just came out there and we just played," cornerback Randy Ponder said. "Our coach always says, 'if you have a place to stand, you''ll make a stop.' Usually we just hear him and we just think he's just talking. We believed after that stand."
In the second half, Mississippi began a drive with 11:04 remaining in regulation, trailing 24-10. On third-and-one from Missouri's 12-yard line, Wallace threw a quick pass to Ja-Mes Logan, who turned up field and into the endzone. The play was reviewed, however, and Logan stepped out of bounds at the seven-yard line.
Another first-and-goal situation. This time, Wallace threw an incompletion on first down. On second down, Kony Ealy stayed home on a reverse and Lucas Vincent tackled Walton for a loss of six yards. Two incompletions later, Missouri's offense took over with 8:08 remaining and a two-touchdown lead
"What do you say about your defense?" said Gary Pinkel. "They battled and made some plays, and really did some great things in really critical situations."
There are drives that matter, and drives that don't matter in the outcome of games. Likewise, there are plays that matter and plays that don't. Missouri saw the latter in the third quarter, when Brantley took a direct snap on a punt and ran for a gain of 26 yards. On the next play, Franklin threw his first interception since Sep. 21 against Indiana.
Missouri's fourth-quarter drive that began on Mississippi's 13-yard line may not have mattered from a cosmetic standpoint. A two-touchdown lead seemed safe.
But from a philosophical view, the next eight minutes, eight seconds of regulation may have been the most impressive drive of the Tigers' season. Missouri ran the ball 13 times. The drive got as far as Mississippi's 22 yard line. It ended with no points.
It ran all 488 seconds off the clock, ending the game with two victory-formation kneel downs by Franklin.
"Man, that drive, dude," Copeland said. "That's kind of when you have to dig deep and say, 'Hey, man, how rock and roll are you?'
"We answered that call. It was a damn good time."
"That definitely feels good," center Evan Boehm said. "As an offensive line, we were hungry to go down and put some points on the board. But, you know what, running eight minutes and eight seconds off the clock, it's huge. Picking up those first downs. We fired off the ball and we were physical this year, this week.
"I think that's why we're so accomplished, in what we did and where we're at."
The two longest plays on the drive were runs of 11 and 13 yards. The rest were grind-it-out yards, culminating in an eight-yard run to the left by Marcus Murphy that set up the clock-killing end. It ended a second half in which Missouri ran for 205 yards, finishing the game with 260 rushing yards.
"It's a big statement," Henry Josey said. "I really take it as a personal thing with me, running the ball, and all of my running backs. We have to do a great job. I tell them everyday in practice, 'This is on us.' If we come out there everytime and do that, and our offensive line loves running the ball so much, so when we do get our chance, we have to go ahead and just plow the ball down the field."
That drive, according to the players at the heart of it, showed the difference in the 2013 Missouri football team.
"You could pick that," Copeland said. "You could also pick the huge stops the defense had, at the goal line. I mean, you could pick a whole bunch of stuff."
"It shows a lot," Boehm said. "But we're still out there for respect. That's our main goal right now."
Missouri won this game -- and nine before it -- on the line of scrimmage. The Tigers' heart beats on the line of scrimmage, radiating outward to all other facets of the game. It's why Gary Pinkel's 2013 team may be his best.
It's why afterthought-Missouri is one game away from a date in Atlanta on Dec. 7.