Missouri QB James Franklin ran for two touchdowns and threw for another to lead the Tigers to a 41-24 win against North Carolina in the Independence Bowl.
SHREVEPORT, La. — North Carolina interim coach Everett Withers didn’t blame the distraction of the program’s upcoming coaching change. Instead, he blamed Missouri quarterback James Franklin.
Franklin ran for two touchdowns and threw for another, and the Tigers easily beat the Tar Heels 41-24 in the Independence Bowl on Monday night.
“He’s just such a dynamic guy running and throwing that you have to respect both,” Withers said. “I always count the quarterback as an extra running back in the spread and that’s exactly what he was.”
For North Carolina (7-6), a season that started with a promising 5-1 record ends with a lopsided loss. The Tar Heels lost five of their final seven under Withers, who leaves to become defensive coordinator at Ohio State under Urban Meyer.
Now the UNC program belongs to Larry Fedora, who left Southern Mississippi after a 12-2 season to lead the Tar Heels. But Withers said the imminent change wasn’t on anyone’s mind.
“We’ve had issues for two years so I don’t know why tonight would be any distraction,” Withers said.
North Carolina had the Atlantic Coast Conference’s second-best rushing defense, giving up just 106.2 yards per game. But the Tigers found plenty of running room with Franklin and Kendial Lawrence repeatedly gashing the Tar Heels for big gains.
Lawrence rushed for 108 yards and a touchdown as the Tigers racked up 337 yards on the ground.
North Carolina’s poor defense wasted a productive game by quarterback Bryn Renner, who threw for 317 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. But Renner couldn’t offset the Tar Heels’ anemic running game, which produced just 36 yards.
Freshman running back Giovani Bernard rushed for 31 yards — more than 70 yards less than his season average.
Missouri (8-5) ends the season on a four-game winning streak for the first time since 1965. The Tigers will join the SEC next fall and showed one reason they should be a factor immediately: The 6-foot-2, 225-pound Franklin, a sophomore who generally did as he pleased in both the running and passing games.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said Franklin has just started to realize his potential.
“After the game, I gave him a hug and said congratulations,” Pinkel said. “Then I went back and asked ‘What happens when you get really good?’ ... He kind of gave me a look, but that’s a huge compliment.”
Franklin, named the game’s offensive Most Valuable Player, rushed for 142 yards and threw for 132 despite less than ideal conditions at Independence Stadium. He led the Tigers to 31 first-half points — an Independence Bowl record.
Missouri’s mascot — Truman the Tiger — shattered most of the original Independence Bowl trophy before the game started in a pre-game accident. The Tigers were more than happy to claim the replacement.
Pinkel didn’t shy away from the importance of the game, saying the result would be “a trivia question after I’m long gone.”
North Carolina scored first, with Renner hitting Dwight Jones for a 22-yard touchdown pass with 12:12 left in the first quarter. That would be the high point for the Tar Heels.
Missouri responded with a 40-yard touchdown pass from receiver T.J. Moe to Wes Kemp after a lateral from Franklin. Moe hadn’t thrown a touchdown pass since his days as a high school quarterback in suburban St. Louis, and it was just his second complete pass of the season.
“I saw the corner bite and I just let her go,” Moe said.
The Tigers scored again on Franklin’s 2-yard run to take a 14-7 lead late in the first quarter. The touchdown was set up by Franklin’s 16-yard pass to L’Damian Washington that put the Tigers at the 2-yard line. Washington grew up in Shreveport, just a few miles from Independence Stadium.
And Missouri just kept piling on.
The Tigers scored two touchdowns and a field goal during the second quarter to take a 31-10 halftime lead.
North Carolina had a glimmer of hope late in the third when Jheranie Boyd caught a 44-yard touchdown pass from Renner to pull the Tar Heels to 34-17, but Missouri responded minutes later with Franklin’s second touchdown run and the rout continued