National Columnist

Missouri stymies Manziel, Aggies 28-21 for SEC East title

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Missouri made the announcement because it had to make it, maybe for legal reasons, but when the public-address announcer asked the crowd to stay off the field after the game Saturday night, the crowd didn't boo. The crowd laughed. Because if Missouri was winning this game, the crowd was coming. And everyone knew it.

Still the announcement was made with about five minutes left, at a curious if not downright presumptuous time given the score was tied and Missouri was 65 yards from the end zone. But the P.A. guy made the announcement, the crowd laughed, and then Missouri tailback Henry Josey -- the absolute right guy to do this -- made it all happen by bursting 57 yards for the deciding touchdown.

A few minutes later Missouri had a 28-21 victory, the SEC East title and a spot in the league championship game against Auburn.

And Missouri's fans had a party on Faurot Field. So many of them came out of the crowd, dressed in black for the team's black-out promotion, the field's green turf was blotted out. P.A. guy encouraged the party by playing "Georgia On My Mind" from Ray Charles, a nod to the SEC title game's location next week in Atlanta.

The crowd laughed some more, then cheered, then stayed. This party was a long time coming for a Missouri program that was jeered in 2012 for leaving the Big 12 for the SEC, as if the Tigers -- whose last conference title had come when the Big 12 was called the Big 8, way back in 1969 -- had any business going to the biggest, baddest football conference in the country.

And truth be told, Missouri had no business going to the SEC in 2012. The Tigers went 5-7 overall, 2-6 in its new conference -- beating just Kentucky and Tennessee, two teams that were a combined 1-15 in SEC play.

But then came 2013, and who could jeer Missouri for joining the SEC this season? The Tigers won at Vanderbilt and Georgia. They blew out Florida, Tennessee and Kentucky. They won at No. 24 Ole Miss. The only thing between Missouri and a perfect record entering Saturday night was an overtime loss to South Carolina, when Missouri played with its backup quarterback and missed two field goals late, including a 24-yarder off the post in the decisive second overtime.

Missouri is a legitimate SEC title contender, and confirmed it Saturday night by holding the explosive Texas A&M offense to 379 yards and 21 points, most likely sealing Johnny Manziel's fate as the latest Heisman winner to not repeat the following year. Manziel wasn't bad -- 24 for 35 for 195 yards and a touchdown; 11 carries for 21 yards -- but he wasn't good enough to win the game or get himself back into the Heisman discussion. Even so, Missouri coach Gary Pinkel invoked the name of the best college player he's ever seen when asked about Manziel.

"He's one of the best players … John Elway has always been probably the best college player I've ever seen," Pinkel said. "But this guy [Manziel] has played one or two games in 24 games that have not been up to par -- but in the rest, he changes games."

Manziel couldn't change this one. When the Aggies needed a late drive to match Josey's touchdown with 3:34 left, Manziel couldn't do it. He threw an incompletion under pressure, then managed just a bubble screen to Mike Evans for a 6-yard loss on the Aggies' final play from scrimmage before Missouri ran out the clock.

Manziel isn't Manziel -- he's banged up, not as explosive as the player who put up such a monstrous season as a freshman -- but Missouri is a dangerous, grinding team that didn't let Manziel put up the passing numbers he has managed in other games. Senior cornerback E.J. Gaines took Aggies star receiver Mike Evans out of the game, holding him to four catches for 8 yards, and the Missouri defensive front stifled the Aggies ground game. Outside of three explosive rushes for 97 yards, Texas A&M's other 32 carries produced just 87 yards. Add that to the blanket Gaines threw over Evans, and Texas A&M's offense was neutered.

Missouri's offense? It's led by a quarterback whisperer. Pinkel has turned Missouri into one of the country's leading producers of great quarterback play, an underrated offensive factory that since 2002 has seen the following stars developed by Pinkel: Brad Smith, Chase Daniel, Blaine Gabbert and now James Franklin. Next year it will be Maty Mauk, the backup who nearly beat South Carolina and did beat Florida, Tennessee and Kentucky.

For now, though, Franklin is back from his shoulder injury -- and he was dynamic against Texas A&M, beating Manziel at his own game by passing for more yards (232) and running for more yards (80) and producing more touchdowns (two). Franklin has a duo of 10-touchdown receivers, Dorial Green-Beckham and L'Damian Washington, both of whom reached that plateau against the Aggies. Both nearly reached the 100-yard mark, too, Green-Beckham finishing with 93 yards on seven catches, Washington with 97 on six catches.

Missouri also has three solid tailbacks, with Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy combining for 57 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries behind the starter, Josey, who suffered a gruesome knee injury two years ago that Missouri's team physician called a "one in a million" injury. Josey ran for 96 yards on 13 carries against Texas A&M, giving him 951 yards for the season.

This is the team that will play Alabama for the SEC title. No, wait -- Auburn? Pinkel said he didn't know until after the game.

"I found out on the field," he said. "I had no idea they won. Big return or something at the end? Unbelievable."

Auburn beat No. 1 Alabama on a 100-yard return of a missed field goal on the final play of the Iron Bowl. But that sentence might not be as weird as this one:

Next week Missouri will play in the SEC championship game, possibly for a spot in the BCS title game.

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