We’ll be running quite a few New Years’ stories today, tomorrow and throughout the next week, but the play of the year is the easiest to pick. The Missouri Tigers’ sports play of the year is such a no-brainer, there isn’t even a close second in any sport.
At a point where the Tigers’ football future was as cloudy as can be, Franklin’s run brought clarity to the entire season, and possibly the university’s athletic future as well. A 1-3 Big 12 record wasn’t helping Missouri make its case that it could compete in the Southeastern Conference, and dropping to 1-4 at the hands of future SEC rival Texas A&M would have made the Tigers a much less appealing candidate to become the conference’s 14th member.
Instead, the Tigers rebounded and played a solid four quarters of football against A&M before pushing the Aggies to overtime and arguably saving the team’s season. Starting with the A&M game, the Tigers went on a 5-1 run to end the season, finishing with a dominant 41-24 Independence Bowl victory over North Carolina to
advance to the next round of the playoffs. Oh wait… end the season.
MU’s season wouldn’t necessarily have been in jeopardy if the Tigers had lost to A&M, but the victory, sparked by Franklin’s touchdown run, certainly was a major step forward for the team. They had played down-to-the wire games against Arizona State and Kansas State in addition to a close game against then-No. 1 Oklahoma, but the Tigers had yet to prove themselves to be able to finish a close game.
The play itself came at an identity-defining moment in the game as well. Both offenses had exchanged three-and-outs, and Missouri’s defense had forced a second three-and-out from Texas A&M. A mix of four passes and four runs later, the Tigers faced 3rd-and-1 on Texas A&M’s 20-yard line. A failed third-down conversion and then a field goal would have still given the Tigers the lead, but the panache and violence with which Franklin scored the touchdown drew first blood from A&M, pumping up the Tigers in the process.
“It’s awesome — it makes me get pumped up and want to hit people,” MU left guard Jayson Palmgren said after the game when asked about Franklin’s running style. “I love it. I love hitting people, and I love having a quarterback who does, too.”
To run the play that set the tone for the rest of the season, the Tigers lined up in an I-formation with tight end Michael Egnew on the right side of the line, running back Jared Culver at fullback and running back Kendial Lawrence at tailback. Receivers Jerrell Jackson and Wes Kemp were out wide on the left side of the field, with Jackson lined up on the line of scrimmage and Kemp three yards behind it.
At the snap of the ball, Franklin executed a play-action fake handoff to Lawrence as right guard Austin Webbels pulled left, blocking a blitz from A&M linebacker Jonathan Stewart.
The rest of the offensive line pushed their assigned defenders to the right. Left tackle Justin Britt engaged A&M defensive end Ben Bass, keeping him from successfully executing a stunt into the middle of the line. Palmgreen manhandled A&M defensive tackle Ben Compton, who bumped into MU center Travis Ruth and was effectively negated from the play. Ruth picked up the assignment of helping double-team A&M defensive lineman Gavin Stansbury, who shed Ruth’s block and then took on a block from MU right tackle Dan Hoch.
The size of the hole for Lawrence and the skill of Franklin’s play-action fake sold the fake run convincingly enough to fool A&M linebacker Steven Jenkins, who vacated a blitz assignment to head to the hole through which Lawrence appeared to be running. Franklin stood in the pocket to pass, but Jackson and Kemp were covered by A&M’s zone and Egnew was blocking A&M linebacker Sean Porter, so he couldn’t throw the ball. Stansbury broke free of Hoch’s block and blew through a block from Culver at the same moment Porter escaped Egnew’s block, forcing Franklin to drop back to the Aggies’ 27-yard line before rolling out to the right and taking off.
Franklin needed to get to A&M’s 19-yard line for the first down, but Stansbury and Porter were chasing him and Bass had a good angle on him as well. Franklin outran Stansbury while Egnew blocked Bass out of the play and Britt came over and blocked Porter.
A&M safety Trent Hunter, cornerback Lionel Smith and linebacker Steven Jenkins converged on Franklin in position to tackle him near the first-down marker. Hunter slipped and fell while trying to lower himself to brace for the tackle on Franklin, who lowered his shoulder and ran between Smith and Jenkins. Jenkins’ head bounced off Franklin’s shoulder, and Jenkins failed to wrap his arms around Franklin in time, allowing the quarterback to continue downfield.
Damontre Moore, who played the “Joker” position and moved all over the field from play to play in former A&M coach Mike Sherman’s defense, was coming from the left side of the field, where he had been in zone coverage when he recognized the play as a pass, arrived in position to tackle Franklin at A&M’s seven-yard line. Franklin bounced off the tackle with a spin move that would have made a running back jealous, and headed into the end zone behind a large convoy of blockers that kept safety Steven Campbell and cornerback Terrence Frederick from getting close enough to bring Franklin down.
MU’s offense scored 91 touchdowns in the 2011 season, but none were nearly as spectacular as the 20-yard touchdown run by Franklin. The Tigers’ amazing play did more than put points on the scoreboard – it defined a thrilling and truly unforgettable season filled with amazing plays and insanely close finishes.