COLUMBIA, Mo. • A pivotal season for the future of Missouri football got off to an inauspiciously shaky start Saturday night at Memorial Stadium.
A lost Mizzou fumble led to a touchdown drive for the Murray State Racers. Yes, the Racers of the Ohio Valley Conference and the Football Championship Subdivision ranks.
Eventually, Russell Hansbrough ran the Racers back to reality.
Then James Franklin took his turn exerting control over the overmatched visitors.
Finally, and most enjoyably for his teammates and the 58,038 at Memorial Stadium, Henry Josey turned back the clock and turned Mizzou’s opener into a rout.
With the Tigers comfortably ahead midway through the third quarter, the junior tailback took a handoff and blasted down the east sideline of Faurot Field — the same sideline where he lay clutching his left knee two years ago when he obliterated the insides of his knee. As he outran a couple Racers to the end zone on the 68-yard touchdown, Josey ran past the exact spot where he suffered the injury against the Longhorns.
This time, he didn’t stop.
“I didn’t think about it at all,” he said after. “I was running for my life at that moment.”
The Tigers (1-0) punched in another score in the 58-14 victory, a game that will be remembered more for Josey’s brilliant return than the Tigers’ sluggish start.
In his 23 seasons as a head coach, Gary Pinkel had never given a game ball to a player — until Saturday.
“The entire team and coaches, everybody … we presented him with the team ball for his courage and determination,” Pinkel said, “his guts and heart and will to come back when so many people said he probably couldn’t do it.”
An hour after the Tigers compiled 694 yards of offense — their most since a 2011 win over Western Illinois, when Josey was the star with 263 yards — Josey carried the ball in one hand and his 2-year-old son, Henry Josey, in the other as he walked out of the stadium alongside close friend, former Mizzou teammate Will Ebner, who spent night and day next to Josey in the hospital after his injury and watched Saturday’s game from the MU sideline.
“I had goose bumps,” Ebner said of Josey’s TD run. “When he hit another gear, it looked like he stomped right on that spot (on the field), like he was reclaiming it. It was really moving.”
“It’s just a blessing,” Josey said.
On a night when Pinkel said Mizzou only showed a glimpse of its entire offense, the Tigers held true to their commitment to a faster-paced no-huddle attack before grabbing a commanding lead in the third quarter.
But it didn’t start so smoothly. Missouri’s first possession of the season lasted only four plays — and not because the Tigers scored quickly. One snap after Josey got a loud ovation for his first carry — a 12-yard slash up the middle — slot receiver Bud Sasser lost a fumble after a short reception. Murray State needed only six plays to cover 59 yards and give the Tigers their first deficit of the season as quarterback — and Ole Miss transfer — Maikhail Miller connected with Walter Powell on a 17-yard touchdown pass, finding the St. Louis native wide open in the middle.
A 3-yard Hansbrough touchdown run evened the score, set up by Franklin’s 44-yard heave to Dorial Green-Beckham down the Racers’ sideline.
After a missed Murray State field goal and two Josey runs to near midfield, Hansbrough found an alley on the left side of the line and dashed untouched for a 51-yard touchdown run. The Racers blocked the PAT, giving Mizzou a 13-7 lead with 8 minutes 43 seconds left in the quarter.
The Racers had an answer. On third-and-4 from the Mizzou 5, Miller threw a short backward pass to running back Jaamal Berry, who tossed a rainbow back to Miller. Isolated against defensive end Kony Ealy in the opposite flat, Miller hauled in the pass, beat Ealy with a spin move and cruised into the end zone, with the PAT giving Murray State a 14-13 lead.
After looking more like the unit Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel shredded in last year’s season finale, Missouri’s defense made up for its early struggles on the next series when cornerback E.J. Gaines made a diving interception. Three plays later slot receiver Jimmie Hunt snuck behind a couple defenders and grabbed an easy 22-yard touchdown pass from Franklin.
“We were just kind of getting a feel for their team,” Ealy said. “We definitely can’t start out that flat from the get-go.”
The Tigers began to pull away with the passing game as Franklin led a 13-play, 82-yard touchdown drive, completing his last four attempts of the series. Marcus Murphy finished off the drive with a 4-yard TD run.
After a shaky start, Missouri’s defense finished the first half with five scoreless possessions, forcing four punts. The Tigers turned the last stop of the half into a field goal when Franklin moved the chains just enough to set up Andrew Baggett’s 43-yarder as time expired, giving Mizzou a 30-14 lead heading into halftime.
To open the third quarter, Franklin took a designed run up the right side for a 37-yard pickup — longer than all but two of his runs of the 2012 season. A play later, he found backup receiver Darius White wide open down the seam for a 37-yard touchdown.
Franklin, who later threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to L’Damian Washington, finished the night with 318 passing yards and three TDs, completing 26 of 38 attempts.
“The guy’s really talented,” Pinkel said of Franklin. “I’m a James Franklin fan, and I think he can have a really, really great year.”