COLUMBIA — The first play was the stuff of daydreams.
Maty Mauk had been running it over in his head since Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Henson installed it Wednesday. Two scenarios ping-ponged around his mind for days: Will the cornerback be pressed, or will he line up away from the line of scrimmage?
The answer would determine whether Mauk would take a deep shot to L’Damian Washington.
When the redshirt freshman took the field for the first snap of his first career start, he looked to his right and found the defensive set-up he’d been dreaming about.
Mauk took the snap, settled into the pocket and launched a rainbow to the right sideline, just over the outstretched hand of a Florida Gator.
The sellout crowd at Memorial Stadium erupted as Washington hauled in the 41-yard completion. They cheered again as Florida safety Cody Riggs was ejected for targeting. And they unleashed the loudest roar yet when Mauk hit Bud Sasser for a 20-yard touchdown on the next play.
For most of the game, which Missouri won 36-17, that’s what Mauk thrived on. He extended plays with his legs and made almost as many ill-advised decisions as he created moments of magic. Mauk was a gunslinger. He rolled the dice more than the injured James Franklin tended to do. And on Saturday, it paid off several times.
“Sometimes he tries to make too much happen,” coach Gary Pinkel said. “He’ll fire it down the field when we have something close that’s open, and he’ll learn from that. But I couldn’t be more pleased with him.”
A particularly cringe-worthy second-quarter interception almost changed the tide of the game, but running back Henry Josey made a shoestring tackle near midfield, and the Gators failed to score on the ensuing offensive possession. Florida defenders dropped two other throws from Mauk. As the game went on however, there were fewer mistakes.
“There’s always a few that you’d like to have back,” Henson said. “Overall, he kept his poise. When bad things happened, he came back from it and continued to play well.
“I didn’t see nervousness. I’m sure it was there. I didn’t see it. I thought that he practiced better this week than he’s practiced all year. He got called to the challenge, and he responded to that challenge. When our team needed him, he stepped up.”
The final line was impressive for a first-time starter, especially against a Florida defense that was one of the best in the nation. Mauk was 16-for-32 for 295 passing yards —The Gators had not allowed a quarterback to throw for more than 200 all season— throwing for one passing touchdown and an interception. He also tacked on a 17-yard touchdown scamper along the left sideline that put the game away for good.
But the first play and subsequent touchdown were the lasting memories for the 20-year-old quarterback.
“All night last night, I was just picturing in my head that L’Damian was gonna score a touchdown or at least make a big play out of it,” Mauk said. “That’s what we did. You’ve got to picture it in your head to do it.”
The moments following the touchdown throw to Sasser were dreamlike, too. Center Evan Boehm ran up to Mauk and lifted him into the air as the crowd roared their approval.
“I couldn’t have done it without them,” Mauk said of his offensive line. “For them to come up and show me how much it meant to the team, it’s the best feeling I’ve had since I’ve been here.”
The Tigers will need more special plays from Mauk if they want to keep up their potentially historic run. The team is 7-0 for the first time since 2010, but that season’s eighth game was a pummeling at the hands of Nebraska.
No Missouri squad has started 8-0 in 53 years. With South Carolina coming to Columbia next Saturday night for Homecoming, this year’s team of Tigers has a chance to be remembered for a long time.
The defense is ready for the challenge: It forced three turnovers against Florida and pounded the offensive line for 6.0 sacks. The running game was excellent— 205 yards—and the receivers displayed their typical athleticism.
But everyone was watching No. 7: Mauk.
Success hinges on the young man touching the ball every single play. With the senior Franklin out until at least mid-November, don’t expect Gary Pinkel to worry about Mauk’s inexperience at the game’s most important position.
“I’ve never had a quarterback thrown into that kind of environment against a great defensive football team,” Pinkel said. “He looked like a seasoned veteran out there.”
Supervising editor is Greg Bowers.