COLUMBIA, Mo. — L’Damian Washington didn’t want to leave on Saturday night until he made sure his quarterback knew how he felt about him.
So as he was about to walk out of the interview room beneath the south stands at Memorial Stadium, he stopped and delivered one final message for Maty Mauk.
"Maty, I love you, man," the Missouri wide receiver said.
Mauk, with a crowd of reporters and television cameras in his face, handled Washington’s words as seamlessly as he’d avoided the Tennessee pass rush for much of the night.
"I love you more," he said.
This is Missouri football after the first nine weeks of an unlikely 2013 season. The No. 10 Tigers overcame a slow start to trounce Tennessee 31-3 on Saturday night behind a dominating defensive effort and another impressive performance by Mauk, its redshirt freshman quarterback who threw for 163 yards and three touchdowns while also running for 114 yards when the Vols’ defense gave him opportunities.
"We started off a little bit shaky," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. "We had a poorly thrown route. We had a bad pass. We had a dropped football. So it didn’t start out real good. This is only the third game (Mauk has) started. Only the third game. He’ll get better and better as he goes. But he does make plays. We all know that."
Missouri is now 8-1 overall and 4-1 in Southeastern Conference play, with a one-game lead over South Carolina (7-2, 5-2) in the SEC East standings going into next Saturday’s game at Kentucky.
Who knows where the Tigers would be without Mauk?
The redshirt freshman entered the fourth quarter at Georgia in Week 7 when James Franklin went out with a shoulder injury and earned the save. Mauk led the Tigers to a 36-17 win against Florida the following week before last week’s 27-24 two-overtime loss to South Carolina.
But Mauk and his Missouri teammates showed no hangover from that loss as they faced the Vols in Week 10.
The kid gunslinger did misfire on some passes early on, including missing Washington on a quick slant during the second series that caused the wide receiver to voice his displeasure with his quarterback.
"I told him I was sorry I kind of yelled at him a little bit," Washington said later of the exchange.
Mauk then led the Tigers to a touchdown on their third series — a tunnel screen pass to Dorial Green-Beckham that turned into a 9-yard score with 2:20 left in the first quarter — and many in the crowd of 65,869 were able to exhale for the first time since last week’s stunning loss.
"He’s poised," Washington said. "The great thing about Maty Mauk is he always has a smile on his face. He always wants to have fun. He’s a young guy. He knows you have to enjoy it right now and I think that’s what he’s doing. He’s leading our team and he’s doing a great job."
It’s not always pretty. There have been times when Mauk has looked like a redshirt freshman pressed into action in the best conference in college football. But he continues to make plays and the Tigers keep winning.
Another redshirt freshman quarterback, Jameis Winston, has become a phenomenon at Florida State, establishing himself as a Heisman Trophy candidate and his Seminoles as a legitimate national championship contender.
Missouri’s young gun doesn’t have the same resume, obviously, but he has filled in admirably since Franklin’s injury three weeks ago.
"Maty plays like what Maty plays," Missouri center Evan Boehm said. "Maty does his own thing. When you see him out there, he makes the plays that Maty makes. You saw that in his highlight film in high school and you’re still seeing it continue out on the field in the big spotlight.
"He’s doing a great job right now. His maturity level is unbelievable for where he’s at right now."
Franklin will be back soon. He practiced this week and warmed up before the game, and Pinkel said the senior quarterback could have played some if needed. This is still Franklin’s team and that’s not going to change.
But Franklin’s team is 8-1 and still leading the SEC East because Mauk stepped in and has done everything he could in the past three weeks. There’s no doubt Mauk’s future is bright. But his present has been key.
"The main thing is just being comfortable, not trying to do too much, let the game come to us," Mauk said. "I feel confident — a lot more confident now — and now we just have to go out there and execute."