LEXINGTON, Ky. — With eight minutes to play in the fourth quarter of Missouri's 48-17 win over Kentucky on Saturday, a familiar face emerged from the sideline and jogged onto the field at Commonwealth Stadium.
For the first time since injuring his non-throwing shoulder in Missouri's win over Georgia on Oct. 12, quarterback James Franklin was healthy enough to take snaps with the No. 1 offense.
There was nothing fancy about what Franklin did. He handed the ball off twice on his first drive before a Morgan Steward fumble ended the offense's time on the field. Still, Franklin came out for another series, this time behind the second string offensive line and a 31-point lead intact. A few more handoffs, and Franklin's day was over.
It wasn't ceremonious. There wasn't a week's worth of build up to Franklin's return or speculation over how the offense would change. Instead, Missouri coach Gary Pinkel snuck Franklin in the game after redshirt freshman quarterback Maty Mauk had put the finishing touches on the best performance of his young career.
"Our medical staff felt that (Franklin) could play on emergency basis only," Pinkel said. "We were very limited in what we could call. Our whole thing was we did not want him to get touched.
"The ideal thing was to do exactly what we did. We just wanted to get some reps in with him. I didn't want him throwing the football."
Pinkel indicated that Franklin would be ready to start against Ole Miss coming out of the bye week, even after Mauk's five-touchdown afternoon. Mauk's performance tied a Missouri record held by Chase Daniel, who threw five touchdowns in a game four times during his career.
Kentucky challenged Missouri's redshirt freshman quarterback, stacking the box to stop the run and daring him to throw. The defensive strategy left Missouri's receivers isolated on the outside. Mauk took full advantage, particularly when throwing to Dorial Green-Beckham, who set a Missouri record with four touchdown receptions in the game.
"If I do throw it up, I have 100-percent confidence that one of them will come down with it," Mauk said. "It really takes a lot of stress off me, especially when I have time to throw."
Franklin's return would mean the end of a four-game stretch for Mauk in which he showed growth. Instead of tucking the ball away and running at the first sign of pressure, Mauk hung in the pocket, allowing plays to develop down field. In addition to the five touchdowns, Mauk competed 60 percent of his passes for the first time in his four starts.
Offensive coordinator Josh Henson was as encouraged by Mauk's play as he has been all season following Saturday's game.
"I think it gives you a lot of confidence for the future," Henson said. "I thought today was probably the most complete game he's played.
"I'm just really proud of the way the team's rallied around him and how he's responded."
The Southeastern Conference can be grueling, Pinkel said. Missouri played eight straight games after a Sept. 14 bye week, including four games on the road, six games in conference and four games without starting quarterback James Franklin.
For the first time since September, Missouri will be able to take a breather with a bye week coming up. Physically and mentally, the Tigers have never been sharper, according to Pinkel. Consecutive victories by 59 points in conference play back that up.
"It was important, especially when you get these long stretches of conference games," guard Max Copeland said. "It's important not to get affected by the weather so to speak. You stay mentally fresh even though your body is kind of wearing down. It's about staying mentally tough and mentally focused. We're proud of how we've done, but it's not perfect."
Missouri's 9-1 record is not perfect, but it's already the team's highest win total since 2010. The Tigers aren't finished, either. After the bye week, games against Ole Miss and Texas A&M loom large for where the 2013 Missouri team fits into the program's history. A representative from the Chick-fil-A Bowl was in attendance for Missouri's win against Kentucky, and the bowl scouts figure to multiply in upcoming games.
In the past two months, Missouri has dealt with a significant injury to its captain, a devastating loss to South Carolina and the added media scrutiny that comes with the success. The Tigers took it all in stride, taking care of business the last two weeks and setting themselves up to achieve their goals in the final two weeks.
First, though, Missouri will get a much-needed hiatus from the grind of SEC play.
"It couldn't have come at a better time," senior tackle Justin Britt said. "It's been a long season. It will be good to get away, reset your mind and get ready for a two-game season."