TEMPE, Ariz. — Around his neck after Friday’s game, James Franklin was wearing his trademark Superman pendant. Friday night, Superman couldn’t quite get it done.
The Tigers fell 37-30 to Arizona State in overtime Friday, the game ending when a desperation Franklin toss on fourth-and-5 landed harmlessly more than 10 yards away from T.J. Moe.
Some quarterbacks take years to mature, others months, but it looked as if Franklin, despite the end result Friday, took six days to make serious strides.
Quite simply, Missouri looked drowned multiple times Friday, but each time Franklin pumped just enough air into the Tigers’ lungs to keep them going just a little further.
“Are you kidding me, to make some of the plays he did?“ Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “The first thing (Arizona State coach) Dennis Erickson told me when he came off the field was ‘That guy is going to be really, really good.'”
Trailing by 14 in the fourth quarter on the road against Arizona State, the momentum had been sucked out of the Tigers after Brock Osweiler’s 12-yard scramble gave the Sun Devils a seemingly comfortable cushion at 30-16.
After rallying the Tigers back to 30-23 with a 25-yard toss to L’Damian Washington, Franklin unleashed his best ball of the day.
When the pass left his hand, it didn’t look like much. He threw it flat-footed, and it floated almost lazily down the right side. But it’s not how the pass looks in the air, it’s where it lands, or more specifically, whose arms it lands in. This one settled snugly into the arms of Missouri's Marcus Lucas, who was 49 yards down the field to set up a game-tying four-yard touchdown connection between Franklin and Egnew.
But the biggest problem for Franklin, who passed for 319 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 84 yards and a score, was that he couldn’t play defensive back.
Time after time in the opening half, Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler ripped apart Missouri’s zone, firing passes beyond the reach of Missouri’s cornerbacks but far enough away from its safeties that they had no chance to roll over to the sideline and make a play on the ball.
“The receivers were just hitting us in the soft spots,” senior safety Kenji Jackson said.
The mistakes weren’t limited to the zone coverage. The longest play of the game for either team came when cornerback Kip Edwards was beaten cleanly in man-to-man coverage by the Sun Devils’ Aaron Pflugrad on a deep route down the right side.
“I got beat because of my focus,” Edwards said. “I knew the play was coming, and I just got ran right by, there’s nothing more else to it.”
The Tigers had just tied the game at 16, and for the first time, actually had some momentum, when Osweiler and Pflugrad rudely ripped it away in an instant, putting the Sun Devils back ahead, revving up the crowd and putting the pressure immediately back on Missouri.
Osweiler’s numbers were even better than Franklin’s — he threw for 353 yards and three touchdowns on 24 for 32.
The loss will be tough to swallow, especially since Missouri had a chance to win the game with 17 seconds remaining on a 48-yard Grant Ressel field goal attempt. Then something strange happened. Missouri called a timeout.
Pinkel explained that the goal when they first lined up was to try and draw sometimes-overzealous Sun Devil linebacker Vontaze Burfict offside and get Ressel five yards closer.
“It didn’t work, so we went back out, kicked it and didn’t make it,” Pinkel said.
Franklin looked exponentially more comfortable in the pocket, feeling the Arizona State rush and having a much better command of when to look down field, when to check down to a man in the flat, and when to step up and run. It didn’t hurt that sophomore Henry Josey, who stepped in as the lone tailback after De’Vion Moore went down with a high ankle sprain, rushed for 94 yards on just nine carries.
Even with last week’s performance, and all the questions it raised, Missouri’s offense still had faith in its quarterback. T.J. Moe summed it up best, after being asked whether he thought the Tigers “lost the game but gained a quarterback.”
“We already knew,” Moe said. “You guys were the ones who didn’t know.”