Golden opportunity

Blackout crowd leads Mizzou past Texas A&M and into SEC title game.

No more wondering whether one mistake might ruin an all-time great season. No more talk of curses or jinxes. No more waiting for respect from other members of the Southeastern Conference.

With a 28-21 win over Texas A&M on senior night, Mizzou closed out an 11-1 regular season in front of a sold-out Memorial Stadium and gave the Tigers an undisputed SEC East title. Picked to finish fifth in the SEC East division before the season started, it’s safe to say that the Tigers have arrived.

Mizzou, ranked fifth in the Bowl Championship Series standings as of Sunday morning, will play BCS No. 4 Auburn at 3 p.m. Saturday in Atlanta. The winner will lock up a BCS bowl berth — the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans — and also will have the chance to play for the national title based on the final BCS standings. It’s just what coach Gary Pinkel and his seniors had in mind after last year’s nightmarish season ended.

“This season was a mission,” Pinkel says. “Our guys got back here in January, and what they did is they said, ‘Well, this is what we have to do.’ January, February, March, methodically going through their schedule, the preparation.”

The win was significant not only to the program but also to Pinkel. It was his 101st victory as coach of the Tigers, tying the legendary Don Faurot for most all time wins at Mizzou. When asked about what the milestone meant to him in his postgame press conference, Pinkel was deferential, joking that he probably would be ready to talk about it when people didn’t care anymore.

“I’m surely honored by it, but that’s not what this night’s about,” said Pinkel, now in his 13th season with Mizzou. “This is about winning a championship. It’s about all the guys here.”

The Tigers earned the victory over the Aggies by relying on a pounding running game, an opportunistic passing attack and a smothering defense.

Mizzou’s ground game gashed A&M for 225 yards on 44 carries. But none of them were bigger than Henry Josey’s 57-yard game-winning run with 3:34 left in the fourth quarter.

After that run, the defense clamped down on A&M’s Johnny Manziel one last time, stymieing any shot the Aggies had at coming back. The Heisman hopeful was held to a career-low 216 all-purpose yards, and star receiver Mike Evans was held to just eight yards on four catches, also both career lows.

Quarterback James Franklin, who struggled early against the Aggie defense, threw for 233 yards and two touchdowns. Wideouts L’Damian Washington and Dorial Green-Beckham each scored his 10th touchdown of the season. The early struggles faded as the Tigers established the game’s tempo in the second half.

“That’s something we wanted to improve on from last year,” Franklin says. “We would get frustrated with each other when we didn’t make a play or missed a tackle. It wasn’t intentional, but this year, we’ve done a great job of getting past mistakes and picking each other up instead.”

And on Saturday night, as the blackout crowd stormed the field to join the players in celebration, Franklin’s words took on a literal meaning. Seniors, such as fan-favorite Max Copeland, were carried off Faurot Field.

“Man, I’m so blessed. I’m so blessed I can’t believe it,” Copeland says. “I’m just so proud of my team. They’re my brothers.”

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