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November 3, 2013
Meeting in the middle
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel has said it before, like numerous coaches before him:
An offense tends to take on the identity of its starting quarterback.
Through five and three-quarters game this season, Missouri's offense was James Franklin. It was calm and collected and ruthless at times in its efficiency and calculation. It was level-headed -- never too high, never too low.
Franklin went down in the fourth quarter against Georgia, and Missouri's offense found a new player to take snaps. For all the similarities between Franklin and his understudy, Maty Mauk -- the dual-threat nature, the ability to extend plays -- the same player they are not.
Mauk has that feeling of invincibility around him -- not in terms of past injuries, but in terms of how he plays. No play is over. It's not always about taking what the defense gives him. As anyone who has watched the last three games can tell, Mauk wants to create, improvise and freelance.
For Mauk, the pocket is an idea, a guideline. It's not an absolute.
In three games, Missouri has seen the highs and lows of that style. The tantalizing potential in a 295-yard performance against Florida's vaunted secondary. The agonizing inconsistency in a 10-of-25 performance in the loss to South Carolina.
In the Tigers' 31-3 win over Tennessee, Missouri and Mauk met in the middle. Mauk still scrambled, but went up in the pocket, forward to the line instead of sideways and backwards. Mauk didn't turn the ball over -- only forced a few throws, in fact -- and was content to let the ground game, the legs of his running backs and his own, do the heavy lifting.
"We definitely had to meet in the middle with him," receiver L'Damian Washington said. "But, right now, he's a gunslinger. He's gutsy, dual-threat. He's leading this team right now, and it's not easy to do, whenever you step into the role of leading an unbeaten team, and right now he's doing a great job."
At this stage in his career, Mauk is the Rick Vaughn of quarterbacks. He's effectively wild. When he's at his best, he's a total wild card to defenses. One play, he's scrambling backwards and to the sideline, trying to outrun a defender before barely getting the ball thrown away. The next, he's stepping up into the pocket and throwing a 40-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Lucas.
That freelancing has carried over to the rest of the team, albeit at appropriate times. It's no knock on Mauk or, Franklin for that matter, but "settle" isn't at the forefront of Mauk's vocabulary.
For the veteran senior, "efficiency" is a synonym for that word.
Because of Mauk's desire to keep plays alive as often as possible, the offense has to adjust. On Saturday, it wasn't always pretty, but there seemed to be more of a symbiotic relationship between Mauk and the rest of his team.
"I love breaking routes off," Washington said. "I love free-styling a little bit out there. He's gutsy and we ride with him."
Mauk's personality, according to guard Max Copeland, lends itself to that style.
"I think I would describe it a little differently, in that the team takes on a new identity," Copeland said. "I've talked about how, with James kind of having a calming presence, that means I can kind of step up the craziness.
"But Maty has got plenty of craziness so I have to step up the calmness, which I'm not very good at so I'm working at it. In that way, we have kind of adjusted."
Copeland said that players, no matter how often the "move 'em over, move 'em up" mantra is repeated, aren't replaceable.
"You have to mesh together," Copeland said. "There's a lot of give and take, push and pull."
Missouri seemed to find the balance on Saturday. Again, it wasn't always pretty. It's not often that a redshirt freshman can pick up a brush and cast a portrait like Van Gogh. But three games into the Mauk Era, Missouri's offense adjusted to its freelancer quarterback. Mauk adjusted to Missouri's veteran offense.
That adjustment may not be seen again this year. After the game, Gary Pinkel said the staff thinks "it's very possible he'll be ready for next week." Should Franklin return, the team will adjust to a different personality back behind center.
Washington said that, no matter what, the team will be ready.
"It's a good problem to have."