Mizzou Football: Tigers' 2013 Year in Review

Dan Irwin@irwinsportsCorrespondent IIDecember 10, 2013

Mizzou Football: Tigers' 2013 Year in Review

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    Mizzou running back Henry Josey celebrates after the biggest touchdown of his career, the one that beat Texas A&M.
    Mizzou running back Henry Josey celebrates after the biggest touchdown of his career, the one that beat Texas A&M.Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

    It's something that's altogether still taking quite a bit for the average Mizzou football fan to get used to. They went to the SEC and, in their second year, achieved a level of success that they've only dreamed about.

    Let's be honest and say that no one saw this coming in the spring...that is except L'Damian Washington who was so convinced that his team was headed for greatness that he was at the SEC media days in the summer saying the team would get 11 wins.

    They laughed at him. But Washington was dead serious.

    "When I said it at the SEC media day, I didn't crack a smile," Washington said to GaryPinkel.com. "Even when people smirked and laughed at me and I said 'Yeah' with a serious face."

    Maybe it was his determination. Maybe he saw something that we didn't, as the media picked the Tigers to finish sixth in the SEC East before the year started. Whatever it was, what followed was one of the most memorable Mizzou seasons in history.

Murray State

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    This game was a success as it allowed the Tigers to do exactly what they wanted to do, for the most part, and execute their offense just as they'd been practicing. And if you want to know about the general story from this one, it wasn't the 58-14 score, or the 694 total yards amassed.

    It was the fact that he was back, and he let everyone know in one play.

    Henry Josey, the junior running back out of Angleton, Texas, had overcome one of the worst knee injuries ever to return to the field, taking off on this play to run over the exact same spot where he sustained the injury to Texas in 2011. It was so much more than a touchdown or a great run, it was a declaration.

    "I have been around 23 years as a head coach, been coaching 35 years and never have been involved in giving a ball to a player because it is a team sport," Gary Pinkel said after the Murray State win.

    "After talking with the entire team, coaches, everybody we brought him in and got him a ball and presented it to him. The team ball was for his courage, determination, his guts, his heart, his will for him to come back when there were a lot of people who said he couldn't."

     

Toledo

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    Coach Pinkel squares off against his former team, the Toledo Rockets.
    Coach Pinkel squares off against his former team, the Toledo Rockets.GaryPinkel.com

    There was one theme that dominated the day and that was the heat.

    Coach Pinkel lined his strategies up against his former team in this first installment of a home-and-home series with Toledo. It was a game that was always in the Tigers favor, but one they could never pull away like they did previously. Little did the Tigers know that their 172 yard rushing output in this game would be one of the lowest team totals for the season.

    Another big reason for the Tiger win was their 9-15 conversion rate on 3rd down. Quarterback James Franklin didn't have the flashy stats in this game, but he got it taken care of when it counted.

    Senior cornerback E.J. Gaines summed up his feelings after the game saying, "Obviously playing in the SEC, you know every game is important so we need to win including the SEC football games. These games are just as important as conference wins."

@ Indiana

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    Mizzou offensive lineman Mitch Hall is ready to block anything on the road against Indiana.
    Mizzou offensive lineman Mitch Hall is ready to block anything on the road against Indiana.GaryPinkel.com

    The talk about this one going in was the two top-10 offenses, and the fact that Indiana believed they were ready to compete with a mid-level SEC team. But Missouri proved that they were far from that with a 45-28 win in Bloomington.

    In what was a decently close contest for most of the first half, defensive lineman Kony Ealy got an interception just before halftime and ran it back 49 yards for a touchdown. This game was really the start of more attention being focused on the defensive line as Ealy was announced as the SEC's Defensive Lineman of the Week.

    The Tigers were starting to realize that they were a decent team, and had a lot of opportunity in front of them. They still had a lot of respect to earn, however.

    "I think we've got really good players. I think they're getting confidence. They're also all staying healthy so we can practice and keep getting better," Pinkel said following the win. "You're not just out there trying to make it to the next game. Again, it's a test. It's one test. We will have many ahead of us and we understand that."

Arkansas State

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    Mizzou's Dorial Green-Beckham eludes an Arkansas State defender en route to a touchdown.
    Mizzou's Dorial Green-Beckham eludes an Arkansas State defender en route to a touchdown.GaryPinkel.com

    A scrappy and extremely disciplined Arkansas State team came to Columbia to finish the Tiger's non-conference slate. The 41-19 final score line is deceptive in that Mizzou didn't really stretch out into a comfortable lead until scoring 21 points in the fourth quarter.

    Franklin sums the conclusion of the game by saying, "I think it is really important. It is a big confidence boost. If we would have not gone undefeated in non-conference play, it is not like it would have been terrible, but it gives us a little chip on our shoulder knowing that we are 4-0."

    The Tigers rank well in several offensive and defensive categories at this point, but still don't have any respect based on the schedule they've faced.

@ Vanderbilt

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    Mizzou kicker Andrew Baggett takes aim on the road at Vanderbilt.
    Mizzou kicker Andrew Baggett takes aim on the road at Vanderbilt.GaryPinkel.com

    Finally, it was time to open SEC play and face an opponent who had beaten the Tigers previously, giving them all the motivation in the world to prove themselves in Nashville.

    Mizzou jumped out to a 20-0 lead by the first quarter, and had a 30-7 lead at halftime, simply implementing their will offensively on Vanderbilt. Franklin threw for four touchdown passes, but the attack was pretty balanced with the run overall.

    The Tigers were firing on all cylinders, but despite beating Vanderbilt and looking good doing it, the rest of the SEC scoffed at the result of this game by pointing out that it's only Vanderbilt.

    But Mizzou continued to simply do what it had done from the start: have a balanced attack and standouts on defense, the perfect recipe for a championship-caliber team to take shape.

@ Georgia

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    James Franklin lead the Missouri offense down to hostile territory in Athens, Georgia. It was Missouri that won convincingly on this day though.
    James Franklin lead the Missouri offense down to hostile territory in Athens, Georgia. It was Missouri that won convincingly on this day though.GaryPinkel.com

    This was it. Tiger Nation was glued to ESPN for this early game that looked important, but more so the longer the game went on.

    Taking on the No. 7 ranked Georgia Bulldogs in front of 93,000 plus is no easy task but Mizzou looked really good when All-American candidate Michael Sam returned an Aaron Murray fumble for a touchdown, making the score 28-10 Mizzou at that point.

    It's no doubt that the Tigers caught a break not playing against Todd Gurley among a host of other Georgia injuries, but Georgia did mount a comeback to bring the game within striking distance. That's when freshman quarterback Maty Mauk was forced into action after a Franklin injury. Mauk delivered helping guide Mizzou to a huge trademark road win and letting Tiger fans know that the team was in good hands, even without James in the game.

    After this win, the Tigers began to get recognition and respect as they were voted into the top 25, but still others deemed Mizzou as a fluke and said Georgia was too battered with injuries to beat anyone. The Mizzou season would press on.

Florida

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    Mizzou freshman quarterback Maty Mauk runs from the Florida defense.
    Mizzou freshman quarterback Maty Mauk runs from the Florida defense.GaryPinkel.com

    In the first game after the the loss of Franklin to injury, all the talk was about Mauk. Could the freshman step in and lead Mizzou to victory over the Florida Gators?

    He passed the test, but also certainly with the help of an amazing defensive performance that held Florida to its lowest offensive output since 1999. Mizzou wasn't just winning games, they were winning games the way they wanted to.

    It was clear they were going to have to do so with Maty Mauk, and this game helped tremendously in the other players establishing faith in him. Mauk talked about his preparations saying, "The main thing for me was to just block everything out. People were going to say 'Oh, the freshman isn't going to be able to win the game,' and then other people were saying, 'He will,' so just block everything out and be me."

    Mizzou put up over 500 yards of total offense against what was a very tough Florida defense. Mizzou was rolling and they clearly had people's attention at this point.

South Carolina

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    Running back Marcus Murphy and quarterback Maty Mauk try to move the ball downfield against South Carolina late in the game.
    Running back Marcus Murphy and quarterback Maty Mauk try to move the ball downfield against South Carolina late in the game.GaryPinkel.com

    It was the game everyone wants to forget. South Carolina came to town highly decorated with a solid national ranking and the star power of Jadeveon Clowney, and although Clowney fell short at meeting expectations, Conner Shaw made up for all of that and then some.

    Mizzou fans are quick to remember the 2005 Independence Bowl in which Brad Smith led Mizzou on a 21-point comeback to beat the Gamecocks. Shaw his team would stage a similar such event, coming back from 17 points down in the 4th quarter to send the game into overtime and ultimately dash Mizzou's hopes.

    Pinkel's opening statement to the media to follow the game was a tough one to have to make, but Pinkel handled it the only way he knows how, with a load of class.

    "A game this close, it gets down to the end, a play here, a play there," Pinkel said. "There wasn't a play or a call that a coach could have made through out the entire game. That did not come down to just one player or one kick or one throw or one catch. Our guys are certainly frustrated and disappointed, and they should be."

    Kicker Andrew Baggett fielded most of the criticism due to his field goal hitting the left upright on an attempt in the second overtime. He took the experience as a learning point, and so did the rest of the team, which was so critical.

Tennessee

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    The Tennessee game was a huge test for Mizzou who was fresh off their huge loss to South Carolina.
    The Tennessee game was a huge test for Mizzou who was fresh off their huge loss to South Carolina.GaryPinkel.com

    The entire season could have gone one of two ways at this point. One of those was the way it didn't go.

    Nothing would have been worse for Missouri than to have started doubting themselves and essentially let South Carolina beat them twice. But the Tigers got back on to their game, with Maty Mauk dazzling Tiger fans and proving that he was going to be successful with a convincing 31-3 win over Tennessee.

    The offensive line had to get a good degree of credit at this point, thanks in part to the senior tandem of left guard Max Copeland and left tackle Justin Britt. The two were having a year of success they'd only dreamed of, and although they'd lost previously to South Carolina, the duo had rendered Clowney to being mostly a non-factor.

    Mizzou was starting to prove that they were for real and were going to challenge for the SEC East at this point. South Carolina had the head-to-head advantage now when it came to Missouri, so the Tigers would have to go unbeaten the rest of the way to keep pace.

@ Kentucky

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    Mizzou wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham had a record setting day against Kentucky.
    Mizzou wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham had a record setting day against Kentucky.GaryPinkel.com

    By this point in his sophomore season, Mizzou wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham had already caught the attention of several coaches and players. But he really made a statement with his day in Lexington.

    Green-Beckham caught a school record four touchdown passes in the game, while Mauk threw for five touchdowns, tying the school record. Both accomplishments on the road and still with their backup quarterback were already impressive enough on their own.

    Following the Kentucky game and the strong performances that came from it, Mizzou entered a bye week where they got a chance to rest and were even given time off to replenish themselves physically and mentally.

    Mizzou had worked their way into the top-10 of the BCS and managed to maintain the ranking despite the South Carolina loss. Mizzou had silenced several critics, but still many were sure that their games against the West to wrap up the season would expose the Tigers and bring them tumbling back down to earth.

@ Ole Miss

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    Mizzou quarterback James Franklin makes his way out onto the field for warm ups against Ole Miss.
    Mizzou quarterback James Franklin makes his way out onto the field for warm ups against Ole Miss.GaryPinkel.com

    Gameday down in Oxford meant one thing for the Tigers, and that was the return of James Franklin. Riding on their backup Maty Mauk for the past several games had yielded some major positives for the Tigers, but having the passing ability and leadership of Franklin was key to this big game on the road.

    Both squads came into this game nationally ranked for a prime time date on ESPN. Although it was the Tiger offense that had all the spotlight pointing their way, it was the Mizzou defense that shined, holding the Rebels to a mere 10 points at home. Red zone defense was the name of the game, as the Tigers twice allowed no points on red zone visits.

    After this gritty game was over, the Tigers had quietly reached several milestones. They were undefeated on the road for the first time since 1979. Pinkel had just won his 100th game at Mizzou. For only the fifth time in school history, Mizzou was going to have a 10-win season. The season was now shaping up to be something special as a huge showdown was now set up in Columbia between their Tigers, and their former Big 12 foe Texas A&M.

Texas A&M, Senior Day

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    Senior wide receiver L'Damian Washington prepares talk walk out onto Faurot Field for the final time with Coach Gary Pinkel.
    Senior wide receiver L'Damian Washington prepares talk walk out onto Faurot Field for the final time with Coach Gary Pinkel.GaryPinkel.com

    For the seniors on this year's Mizzou football team, it wasn't about having a day to acknowledge them and their achievements. It was knowing that they were handing the team and its winning ways over to the younger guys. When this group of seniors started in 2009 and 2010, they saw winning first hand as their teams were highly ranked and included a trademark win over No. 1 ranked Oklahoma.

    But winning ways had slipped away with the SEC transition, something that the seniors weren't taking lightly.

    There was perhaps no senior happier, or one that you couldn't help but feel happier for, than captain wideout L'Damian Washington. Brought up in a rough environment in Louisiana, his parents had both passed on before high school was over. He was thrown into a role of raising his siblings before taking off to the University of Missouri on a mission to get a college degree.

    His experience with his siblings served him well being a leader on the team, as he naturally took over a role in the spring that he was made for. But walking out onto the field for the last time, coach Pinkel remembered all that he'd done and all that he'd been through.

    L'Damian went on to have some incredible catches during the game, but it will ultimately be remembered for Henry Josey's touchdown run in the fourth quarter that broke the 21-21 tie and secured the win, as well as the SEC East. The seniors had set tough goals, with L'Damian Washington writing checks at the SEC media days over the summer. Those checks were cashed at full value as the Tigers were competing for championships.

SEC Championship Game

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    Bud Sasser goes up for a ball at the 2013 SEC Championship Game in Atlanta.
    Bud Sasser goes up for a ball at the 2013 SEC Championship Game in Atlanta.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    It was most likely the biggest game in 123 years of Mizzou football. Some could point to the 2007 game for the Big 12 Championship against Oklahoma, but there was a prevailing feeling going into that game that the Tigers didn't stand much of a chance. With the game against Auburn, however, they did.

    Until they got on the field and met Tre Mason.

    The Tigers fought hard to keep pace with the West division champs, but found their running game to be unstoppable as the quick speed of their defensive ends just wasn't the right match to stop Auburn's power running game.

    But for Mizzou, there's a lot to be proud of. Just making to this game when you're picked to finish sixth in your division is an accomplishment in itself. Going there and competing with class, having a close game says a lot more. Only late in the game after a failed 4th down conversion did Auburn blow open a 17-point lead.

    For the older players, an amazing memory to a season that was just magical. For the younger guys, this game was a huge learning experience, something that they'll no doubt reference as their playing careers grow. It wasn't everything Mizzou fans hoped it would be, but it sure didn't make everything else a disappointment. The Tigers had maintained a Top 10 BCS ranking throughout the year and looked like an SEC team doing it.

Conclusion

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    Mizzou will now prepare to play one of its former Big 12 Conference foes in Oklahoma State.
    Mizzou will now prepare to play one of its former Big 12 Conference foes in Oklahoma State.G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images

    No one, and I mean no one saw 2013 coming (except L'Damian Washington). Without all the injuries that plagued them in 2012, they were able to rise to their full potential and show that their brand of football is among the best in the country.

    As the Tigers contemplate on their season and think about what could have been, they'll still have a chance to get Coach Pinkel that 102nd win that will set him apart as the all-time wins leader at Mizzou. And they do it against none other than their former Big 12 opponents, the Oklahoma State Cowboys at the Jerry Jones circus-complex in Dallas.

    This game is usually exciting for the Big 12, but "letting" Mizzou play against a former Big 12 team in a major sport for the first time since their departure to the SEC has got to be burning some buns at the Big 12 headquarters in Kansas City. Can Mizzou get a football game going again with Kansas since we're on the subject?

    In any event, the 2013 season turned out to be one of the best for Mizzou ever, and not one that fans are likely to forget anytime soon. The implications of this year are far-reaching, too, as recruiting will be affected heavily from their on-field performance. If there was anything else to say, it's that fans may not be so quick to want to blame Pinkel if something goes wrong again.  After all, he's only turned everything around a few times now.

    Dan Irwin's blog is the I-70 Sports Report. Follow him on Twitter @danirwinsports or on Facebook.