NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Missouri's offense took the wind out of Vanderbilt's sails. Then shredded them. Then burned down the Commodores' ship.
James Franklin was master and commander of the 51-28 onslaught. His offense got the ball 11 times, scored on every single drive but two, and didn’t punt until less than 10 minutes remained in the game. He managed 343 total yards and four touchdown passes, keeping the defense on its toes through the air and on its back with his punishing runs.
"Last year, people were on James a lot," wide receiver L'Damian Washington said. "This year, he's out with a vengeance. I'm a James Franklin fan."
The destruction was swift in the Tigers' first SEC game; Missouri put Vanderbilt in a 17-point hole within the first eight minutes. Points flew through the air at breakneck speed: Franklin to Washington for a 26-yard touchdown. Field goal by Andrew Baggett. Franklin to Eric Waters for 11 yards. Baggett. Henry Josey from five yards out. Baggett.
"We came out high energy," coach Gary Pinkel said. "Our players were waiting for league play."
A 30-7 halftime lead left the homecoming crowd at Vanderbilt shocked — the local supporters, anyway. Missouri fans showed up in droves and filled up nearly half of the stadium's east side. The band played more songs than the cover groups at Honky Tonk Central the night before, and "Z-O-U!" roared through the air plenty of times.
Missouri's defense couldn't quite get on the offense's level — Vanderbilt managed four touchdowns throughout the night — but it made several plays that kept the crowd at high volume. Defensive end Michael Sam accounted for three of the team's seven sacks, and linebacker Kentrell Brothers made an interception early in the game that helped the Tigers to its quick 17-0 lead.
The Commodores had a few offensive bright spots — wide receiver Jordan Matthews set school records for career touchdown catches (22) and receiving yards (2,990) — but they simply could not keep up with Franklin. After a 35-yard touchdown pass from Vanderbilt's Austyn Carta-Samuels to Jonathan Krause, Missouri's quarterback responded with a 45-yard strike of his own to Washington nine seconds later.
"He's playing with the best of them," Pinkel said. "It's great to see. I'm happy for him."
Tight end Eric Waters saw something special from his quarterback on Saturday night.
"He's got something not a lot of quarterbacks, not a lot of players in general, have," Waters said. "He doesn't get flustered often. If he does, he doesn't show it."
Now, the Tigers are 5-0 with a big road SEC win. They've matched last season's win total with seven games to play, and one more 'W' assures that they'll go bowling after a 2002 season that lacked a postseason.
"We had great leadership last year," Pinkel said. "If I had done a better job coaching, we would have won one more game. That's all we needed to do."
Pinkel's squad heads into Georgia (4-1) next week for a nationally televised game that serves as a giant measuring stick. The No. 6 Bulldogs are one of the nation's most powerful programs.
Saturday night in Nashville, Missouri aced its biggest test of the 2013 season so far, but Pinkel wasn't ready to give his Tigers too much praise.
"I don't think we've played our best game yet," Pinkel said.