COLUMBIA, Mo. - With Southeastern Conference play opening in one week, Saturday's game against Arkansas State was one the Tigers could ill afford to lose.
But for a while, the Tigers were in trouble.
Missouri trailed Arkansas State 16-14 in the third quarter before the Tigers came to life, outscoring the Red Wolves 27-3 the rest of the game in a 41-19 victory at Faurot Field.
The Tigers had to scratch and claw their way for three quarters but ultimately will head into conference play with a 4-0 record.
"We battled through that," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. "You could see our players just elevate their play. That was great."
Arkansas State torched Missouri's defense in the first half to the tune of 285 yards. The Red Wolves ran 52 plays to Missouri's 25 and converted 6-of-11 third-down conversions.
But Missouri's offense came alive in the second half and the defense tightened up.
"It was completely different halves for our defense," Pinkel said.
Arkansas State had a 16-14 lead and had Missouri pinned back on its own 6-yard line midway through the third quarter. But the Tigers went on a nine-play, 94-yard drive to take a 20-16 lead. The drive was capped off with a 5-yard touchdown pass from James Franklin to L'Damian Washington.
After a 3-and-out, Missouri finally had some momentum. This time the Tigers took the ball 87 yards on nine plays, capped off with a 1-yard touchdown run by Henry Josey on an option play to take a 27-16 lead.
After Arkansas State kicker Brian Davis made his third field goal midway through the fourth quarter to make it a 27-19 game, the Tigers pulled away for good.
Franklin led the Tigers down the field again finishing it off with a 9-yard touchdown run with 5:06 left. That put Missouri up 34-19.
A 5-yard touchdown pass from Franklin to Dorial Green-Beckham in the final minutes iced the game.
The Tigers outgained the Red Wolves 264-140 in the second half.
"We just came out in the second half ready to go, ready to fight," Green-Beckham said. "We came out there and ran the ball well, threw the ball well and made big stops on defense. That's something we've got to do every game."
The Tigers were lucky they had a 14-13 halftime lead.
After Arkansas State drove inside the Missouri 5-yard line with less than a minute left, Missouri stuffed a pair of running plays. On third-and-goal, Adam Kennedy dropped back to pass and completed a pass to David Oku that was 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage. The clock ran out before the Red Wolves could attempt a field goal. Had Oku dropped the ball, Arkansas State would have been able to kick a field goal.
"That whole stand down there on the 1-yard line was pretty remarkable," Pinkel said.
But that was one of the few bright spots for Missouri in the first half.
"We had a few mental errors," cornerback Aarion Penton said. "We just came together as a team and did what we were supposed to do."
Penton saw more playing time after cornerback Randy Ponder was ejected in the first half for targeting. The play was reviewed and upheld. It did not appear as though Ponder lowered his head at the defender.
Pinkel said after the game he would have to review the play.
The second half was a welcome change for the Tigers.
Arkansas State took a 6-0 lead with a pair of field goals in the first quarter by Davis.
Missouri took a 7-6 lead on an 8-yard touchdown run with two minutes left in the first quarter by Marcus Murphy. The Tigers opened up a 14-6 lead when Franklin and Green-Beckham connected on a 68-yard touchdown over the middle early in the second.
Franklin finished 21-of-30 for 256 yards and three touchdowns.
The Red Wolves (2-3), the defending Sun Belt champions, held their own and more for much of the game. Kennedy was nearly unstoppable, competing 37-of-48 passes for 308 yards. His 37 completions tied a school record. J.D. McKissick's 15 catches were also a school record.
"They were by far the best team we've played so far," Penton said. "The way our schedule is set up, we've got a better team every week. They're getting better as the weeks go on."
Missouri's big second half propelled the Tigers to victory. But the Tigers may need a better first half next week when it opens SEC play Saturday at Vanderbilt.
Notes: Missouri linebacker Andrew Wilson finished with a career high 17 tackles ... The Tigers are 4-0 for the first time since 2010. ... Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel passed Dan Devine for the second most wins in school history with 94. ... Missouri forced a turnover for the 34th straight game, the longest active streak in the country.