By the Associated Press
COLUMBIA, Mo. — With 1:52 remaining in last week’s home finale, Missouri redshirt freshman Andrew Baggett jogged back to the sideline, greeted by high-fives from teammates after kicking a 46-yard field goal.
The Tigers had just taken a 27-24 lead over Syracuse and looked as if they were going to extend their school-record bowl streak to eight. For a program entering the year with 48 wins in its past five seasons, reaching the postseason has been a baseline.
But this year, Missouri’s first in the Southeastern Conference, injuries and off-field issues have hampered the team’s success. The Tigers (5-6, 2-5 SEC) haven’t won consecutive games for the first time since 2001, coach Gary Pinkel’s first season with the team.
So when Syracuse drove 81 yards and scored the game-winning touchdown with 20 seconds left, it was another punch in the gut for the home team.
“It’s amazing, you’re 20 seconds away from winning the game, and when you win it, everything’s so much better,” Pinkel said. “And when you lose it, everything’s so much worse.”
The loss was the team’s sixth game decided by seven points or less.
“I don’t know if you guys understand how hard we fight, how much we want to win,” senior left tackle Elvis Fisher said. “I know that sometimes, a lot of people may say, ‘It doesn’t look like they’re even playing that well.’ We’re fighting our butts off out there. We want to win.”
The Tigers now must win at fellow SEC newcomer Texas A&M (9-2, 5-2) to keep their season alive. Despite having won in College Station the past two years, Missouri hasn’t faced redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel, who’s guided the ninth-ranked Aggies to the upper tier of their new conference.
Missouri will benefit from the return of junior defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, who didn’t play against Syracuse while suspended for violating team rules. Richardson’s 70 tackles are second most on the team and rank first among interior defensive linemen in the SEC. Without him, the team registered only two tackles for loss and failed to record a sack against the Orange.
Richardson’s teammates are eager to move on.
“It’s easy for an outsider looking in to criticize the mistakes,” junior right guard Max Copeland said. “But criticism’s real easy, man. And forgiveness isn’t. And that’s what we do. That’s the nature of our brotherhood. We forgive each other, we love each other.”
The team hasn’t said who will be starting at quarterback. Junior James Franklin suffered a concussion in the fourth quarter against Syracuse and is questionable this week. Franklin threw for 279 yards — his best performance of the season — and two touchdowns before leaving the game. After starting all 13 games in 2011, he’s missed three starts this year because of shoulder and knee injuries.
Redshirt freshmen Corbin Berkstresser, who threw for 85 yards and led two scoring drives in the fourth quarter Saturday, will start if Franklin can’t play. If there were a silver lining to the team’s injury woes this season, it would be the experience gained by some of the Tigers’ younger players.
“He’s progressed as a quarterback at a pretty good rate,” offensive coordinator David Yost said of Berkstresser. “And really, it’s not like he’s a backup anymore because he’s played so much.”
Missouri has no plans to give up on its season with one sure game remaining.
“Doesn’t matter what happens,” Copeland said. “You can have big wins, big losses. The fire’s still there to compete. That’s why we do what we do.”