COLUMBIA - At Missouri’s weekly media day on Monday, coach Gary Pinkel put all lingering doubts about junior quarterback James Franklin’s health to rest.
“We’re not even talking about his shoulder anymore,” Pinkel said. “That’s over. He’s back.”
He was back, but not for long.
Franklin played just two drives in Missouri’s 19-15 loss to Vanderbilt at Memorial Stadium on Saturday night, leaving the game midway through the first quarter with a sprained MCL in his left knee. After disappearing into the locker room for a short period, he emerged on the sideline, wearing sweats and a black baseball cap – an all-too-familiar sight for Missouri fans.
Without its primary signal caller once again, Missouri’s offense sputtered. As Franklin limped along the sideline, still occasionally mustering up the ability to flash that megawatt smile, Corbin Berkstresser did little to fill his shoes.
But before the rut of three-and-outs, dropped passes and predictably conservative play calling, the Missouri offense was humming along with Franklin at the helm.
In the first drive of the game, Missouri moved the ball 61 yards, eventually settling for a 31-yard field goal by freshman kicker Andrew Baggett. Franklin completed two passes to senior receiver Gahn McGaffie on the drive, and running back Marcus Murphy ran for 25 yards on a reverse down the left sideline.
The next drive produced nearly identical results, as the Tigers moved the ball 62 yards and Baggett ended the drive with a 28-yard field goal. Franklin completed two passes to receiver Marcus Lucas, spanning 15 and 18 yards, showing an ability to move the ball downfield that wasn’t present in Missouri’s blowout loss to South Carolina two weeks ago.
“James was playing pretty darn good, I thought," Pinkel said after the game. "He was really playing good.
But when Franklin left the pocket and scrambled to his right at the Vanderbilt 36-yard line, the game changed with one collision of a helmet and a knee.
Franklin rolled out to his right, surveying downfield for possible receivers. Finding none, he tucked the ball under his arm and took off, weaving around blockers and into the open field. He bounced off Vanderbilt safety Kenny Ladler, who tried feebly to tackle him but fell by the wayside.
And then came the hit. Vanderbilt safety Eric Samuels dived at Franklin from his right, connecting with his helmet directly to Franklin’s left knee. Franklin spun sideways and went down awkwardly, like a steam locomotive suddenly and violently derailed.
Missouri had gained 23 yards but lost its quarterback.
"I really feel bad for him, because for some reason the injury bug’s hit him," Pinkel said, referring to Franklin. "I feel bad because certainly he wants to play, and he wants to compete.”
Franklin stayed in for three more plays, up until the field goal by Baggett. But the damage was done.
He moved around with a visible limp, trying to avoid putting pressure on his left leg. As he left the field after the drive, Franklin high-fived a few teammates, moving slowly but steadily toward the training table.
He left the game, Berkstresser came in and for the rest of the first half, Missouri’s offense collapsed.
Berkstresser, a redshirt freshman from Lee’s Summit, threw the ball high and low but rarely on target. He missed on his first six passes.
The next six drives resulted in a Berkstresser fumble, a Vanderbilt safety, a turnover on downs and three punts.
Punts, for the remainder of the first half, were the best-case scenario.
“I definitely went out there with a little bit more nerves than I should have," Berkstresser said. "I definitely wasn’t as prepared as I was last time. I got the nerves out a little bit and just tried to compete as best I can.”
As Missouri trotted into the locker room at halftime, trailing 9-6, boos cascaded down from the student section in the east bleachers. The biggest cheer to that point came at halftime, when Missouri fans watched the Kansas Jayhawks mascot get tackled on the video board.
Berkstresser responded after the break with one huge play, an 85-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter to receiver Bud Sasser.
On the play, Berkstresser took the snap at his own 15-yard line on a third and 17. He backpedaled, immediately looking downfield, and released the ball down the right sideline. It fluttered into the waiting arms of Sasser, who had run past Vanderbilt’s secondary and down the right sideline into the end zone.
The touchdown would be Missouri's last notable highlight of the night. Berkstresser finished only nine for 30, passing for 189 yards and one touchdown.
Pinkel reiterated that it's difficult for any quarterback — especially a redshirt freshman — to be inserted into a game without warning. But despite his struggles, Pinkel vowed not to give up on Berkstresser.
“We’re not going to put him on a shelf and say, ‘See you later’ for four years," Pinkel said. "You kidding me? That’s a tough position to be in. You all know that. It’s very, very difficult.”
Forty-five minutes after the game had ended, Berkstresser made his way outside the south end of the stadium, finding some friends who, upon seeing him, waved at him and called his name.
He hugged one of them, never smiling, just staring into the distance beyond Memorial Stadium.
Missouri's new starting quarterback, in the cold air just feet away from the football field where his team just lost, wasn't yet ready to move on.