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3 things to watch in Tennessee-Mizzou matchup

Keep an eye on battling freshman QBs, the Mizzou running game and the return of E.J. Gaines

That double-overtime loss to South Carolina last week? Get over it. That's what Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel expects of his team with Tennessee coming to town Saturday.

 

"Obviously, it was a very stinging loss," he said. "But we're in November, we're 7-1, we play two games, then a bye week and then two more games. It's a different season. November is what it's all about in college football, to be able to win in November.


"I think we're practicing well and focused and there's a lot out there. Why would we be crying in our tears over something that happened a few days ago? I don't think we are. It's still about how we play. We're playing a real good football team, but it's still about how we play, and I'll be very disappointed if we don't play at a high level."

 

Here are three things to watch Saturday night as Mizzou (7-1, 3-1 SEC) welcomes Tennessee (4-4, 1-3 SEC) to Memorial Stadium:

 

Freshman quarterbacks

 

Though James Franklin returned to practice this week from a shoulder injury that sidelined him for the Florida and South Carolina games, it's unknown whether the senior quarterback will take any snaps.

 

That means redshirt freshman Maty Mauk will make his third start at quarterback. Mauk will need to be more consistent for the Tigers' offense to hum. He has completed just 49.3 percent of his passes for 585 yards, with two touchdowns and two interceptions. He also ran for one score.

 

"I've never had a quarterback go through a gauntlet of teams like this," Pinkel said of Mauk's relief appearance vs. Georgia and starts against Florida, South Carolina and now Tennessee. "I think he's doing a lot of good things. I'm really pleased with him. Obviously, it's a tremendous amount of pressure on a young player, but he's doing good things. As it goes every game he plays he'll mature a little and grow a little."

 

If Mauk struggles, will Pinkel turn to Franklin to save the day? It worked last week for Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier with Connor Shaw.

 

Tennessee has a similar quarterback quandary. Starter Justin Worley is out indefinitely after having surgery on his right thumb, leaving Josh Dobbs, a true freshman, to make his first start.

 

Dobbs saw his first action in the second half of the Vols' 45-10 loss to Alabama last week. He completed five of 12 passes for 75 yards. He's known as a player who can make plays with his feet, but he'll have a tough challenge against Michael Sam and the Tigers' stable of pass rushers.

 

"I think we saw a little bit last week where he can make plays," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "When the pocket collapses he can get outside the defense and make plays with his legs, but also he can make plays and scramble and push the ball downfield. I thought he showed very good poise for a true freshman coming in in that type of environment versus that type of quality of opponent in Alabama. Now we need to continue to build off that. But we always set our offense to play to the skill set of the quarterback. I do think he brings another element to our offense now."

 

Mizzou's running game

 

Mizzou enters Week 9 with its top two running backs, Henry Josey and Russell Hansbrough, dealing with injuries.

 

Josey reportedly suffered a concussion last week and is officially listed as questionable for this game, though he's still listed as the starter on the depth chart. Hansbrough, No. 2 on the depth chart, has been battling turf toe. Together, Josey and Hansbrough have combined for 1,022 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns through eight games.

 

Missouri is third in the SEC in rushing yards, averaging 224.5 per game, and continuing to run the ball effectively will have two benefits: It will take some of the pressure off Mauk and give the defense a breather.

 

Marcus Murphy, who has been in the running mix all season but was third in line until now, carried 12 times for 53 yards and two touchdowns against South Carolina. He has rushed for 410 yards, averaging a team-high 7.7 yards per carry, and scored seven touchdowns.

 

Redshirt freshman Morgan Steward could see some carries. He has rushed for 40 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries this season.

 

E.J. Gaines returns

 

Somewhat lost in the aftermath of the South Carolina loss was that the Tigers were playing not just without Franklin on offense, but also without defensive leader E.J. Gaines.

 

Gaines, a senior cornerback, missed the last two games with a quad injury but is still tied for the team lead with three interceptions and is tied for fourth in total tackles with 34.

 

In place of Gaines, the Tigers rotated freshman Aarion Penton and redshirt freshman John Gibson against Florida and South Carolina. Getting Gaines back adds experience and big-play potential to the secondary.

 

"E.J. was an all-conference player two years ago in the Big 12 and he's a leader, and there's a sense of he's our best player on defense and he's back," Pinkel said. "Just like losing James Franklin, we lost our two top players. E.J. is really, very well respected and it's great to have him back in the huddle."


You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter at @natelatsch or email him at natelatsch@gmail.com.