COLUMBIA — Wins like Missouri's convincing 36-17 victory over Florida on Saturday can help define a season in the Southeastern Conference.
Fresh off an upset of No. 6 Georgia on the road, one of the biggest wins in program history, Missouri didn't miss a step. Playing without starting quarterback James Franklin and defensive captain E.J. Gaines, both of whom were injured against Georgia, Missouri saw two freshmen step into their roles and keep things rolling.
Saturday's win wasn't about how it looked. It wasn't about the 67,124 fans that packed into Memorial Stadium or where Missouri would fit into the polls. It was about a team that withstood the injuries, suffocated Florida's offense and did what it had to do to improve to 7-0 and take control of the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division.
"We have a special opportunity," Missouri center Evan Boehm said. "It's not given. It's earned."
There were imperfect moments in Missouri's win. But for each blunder or scare for the Tigers, relief wasn't far behind.
There was an injury to Henry Josey that had the sellout crowd at Memorial Stadium holding its breath. Then there was the goosebumps-inspiring ovation Josey received as he jogged off the field and the 50-yard run he ripped off on his first carry after going down.
"Henry is the son of Mizzou," wide receiver L'Damian Washington said after the game.
There were numerous questionable throws from Maty Mauk, one of which found its way into the hands of Florida defensive back Brian Poole. But there were also aggressive, down-field darts from Mauk that beat Florida's star-studded secondary and a late touchdown run from the redshirt freshman that preceded a fireworks display in the north end zone.
The closing moments of the game were a whirlwind. Missouri's lead had grown to 19 points. The seconds ticked off the clock as the public address announcer read scores from around the SEC. Vanderbilt beat Georgia. Tennessee beat South Carolina.
The stadium erupted in cheers. Missouri's division lead had grown to two games.
The final gun sounded, and Missouri players crowded into the student section to celebrate. In unison, the players and fans chanted, "We want Gameday," referring to ESPN's weekly preview show that travels around the country for the marquee game of the week.
Just like that, the stage was set for the Oct. 26 Homecoming matchup against South Carolina.
For Missouri, it's another one of those Saturdays that will define the season.
"I talked to the team about getting back to the grind," Pinkel said. "They know what the grind means. They have to have the discipline and mental toughness to handle all of this attention that will be thrown at them."
Missouri center Evan Boehm walked off the field, a 36-17 win over Florida in hand, a successful afternoon of blocking for redshirt freshman quarterback Maty Mauk behind him. But Boehm ended up pulling double duty protecting Mauk.
Teammates and cameras circled Mauk, who replaced the injured James Franklin and threw for 295 yards and a touchdown while adding a rushing touchdown. Defensive end Michael Sam hugged Mauk. Wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham couldn't stop smiling as he exchanged high fives with his new quarterback.
All the while, Boehm had his arm around his best friend and quarterback, staying in his ear all the way through the tunnel while fans shouted and cameras flashed and his other teammates provided Mauk with words of encouragement.
"We still have work to do," Boehm told Mauk.
"You're exactly right," Mauk said, allowing only a slight smile despite his strong performance.
Boehm thinks people should have seen it coming. He came to Missouri as part of the same recruiting class as Mauk. The two have become close friends, and Boehm laughed at those who speculated whether Mauk was ready to take over.
"I knew Maty was going to do that," Boehm said. "Nobody knows what Maty can do. I think he proved himself today. He made a few freshman mistakes, but that's going to happen. It's how he bounces back from that."
It started right away, with a scripted deep pass down the sideline to senior wide receiver L'Damian Washington. On the very next play, Mauk found Bud Sasser in the end zone to open up the scoring for Missouri.
It set the tone for a 500-yard, 36-point performance from the Tiger offense, which snapped a streak of 13 consecutive games in which the Gators had held opponents under 20 points and marked the seventh time in seven games this season that Missouri had scored more than 30 points.
"There's a reason Maty Mauk was the high school all-American that he was, I guess," Washington said. "He's a relentless guy. Very aggressive. Maty Football."
At times, Mauk might have been too aggressive. He threw one interception and had two others dropped. He wasn't afraid to take shots down field and extended plays with his legs to buy time for receivers to get open. Rarely did he concede defeat and throw the ball away.
"The way he is, he'll go deep sometimes when he shouldn't go deep," Pinkel said. "I say that in respect for him. That's just the way he is. Quite honestly, if you watched him play in high school, that's what he looked like.
"It's great to see a back-up quarterback come in and play at that kind of a level."
Boehm laughed at the "backup" label Mauk was tagged with all week and during the game.
"Backup quarterback," Boehm said shaking his head. "Maty would be starting anywhere else. You guys saw Maty. He doesn't perform like he's a backup. He was calm, cool and collected."
The confidence Mauk had in himself spread throughout the team. He managed to block out the distractions in the week of preparation but admitted he had trouble containing his excitement, especially after the quick score to open the game.
"That felt really good," Mauk said. "That got my nerves down. I was a little too hyped honestly. I just wanted to go out and play football again."
It didn't hurt that the coaches backed up their words at media day, didn't change the offense and showed confidence in their young quarterback.
"It meant a lot to me," Mauk said. "Coming into the game, when they said we were going to throw the ball the first two plays. That's what I do. That's why I came here."
Late in the game, Mauk scrambled away from oncoming Florida defenders and found himself scrambling toward the end zone with just enough of an opening.
He crossed the goal line, put the football down and kept walking toward the track surrounding Faurot Field. He was shaking his head, almost in disbelief at what he had done. Before he knew it, he was being lifted in the air by his center and best friend.
"That's special," Boehm said. "When we come in, we always talk about something like that. We were waiting for the day for that to happen. Being one of my best friends here, it's something special."
Many counted Missouri out after Franklin went down for three to five weeks with a shoulder injury. But Mauk reassured people across the country that the Tigers aren't going anywhere.
"He's more confident now than he was at the beginning of the year, and he's going to be more confident next Saturday than he was this Saturday," Boehm said.
Another injury scare for Henry Josey
Henry Josey was scared to death.
He took a handoff and cut toward the right side. There wasn't a sliver of running room in Florida's front-seven. Before Josey knew it, he was bottled up and his knee had twisted in a way it hadn't since his surgery.
Memorial Stadium fell silent as Josey went to the ground and didn't get up. He was holding the same leg that was surgically repaired after his gruesome knee injury.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel started praying.
"When he was holding his leg, I didn't know what was going on," Pinkel said. "I was just hoping and praying that he was OK."
Luckily, Josey was. He pulled himself off the field with the help of the trainers and slowly realized his knee would be just fine. Josey began to jog back to the sideline, and the student section let out a sigh of relief and a standing ovation for the star running back.
"To see him get up, especially after what he went through two years ago, we knew we had to bring it all together and finish this game."
Prior to Josey's injury, Marcus Murphy had exited the game with a slight concussion and Russell Hansbrough was in the locker room with turf toe. Josey's injury ended the drive, but he didn't miss a play on the next series.
His first run after the scare? A 50-yard burst up the middle that put to rest any concern about his health.
Josey finished with 136 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries against a Florida defense that was one of the best in the nation, allowing just over 83 yards per game on the ground.
"He had a heckuva game," Pinkel said.