COLUMBIA, Mo. — Superb or shaky. Terrific or tentative. Brilliant or baffling.
Strong adjectives seem to be the only ones that apply to Missouri’s sophomore quarterback Maty Mauk, the newly appointed leader of the Tigers’ revamped offense. Coach Gary Pinkel stressed the need for consistency throughout August, and Saturday’s season opener showed that Mauk — among many others — still has work to do.
"He made a lot of big plays downfield, but he also was running around a lot," Pinkel said. "We’ve got to protect better."
Mauk did enough to lead his team to a closer-than-expected, 38-18 win over South Dakota State. Maybe most important, he never turned the ball over while completing 13 of 21 passes for 178 yards, including 113 on his three touchdowns.
Two of his first four throws couldn’t have been more perfect, starting with a strike over the middle to Darius White for a 44-yard touchdown on the third play of the game. The pair connected for the second and final time to put Mizzou back ahead for good less than seven minutes later when a beautifully arcing pass fell into White’s arms in the end zone, just beyond the reach of a South Dakota State defender.
"It boosted (Mauk’s) confidence and it boosted the whole offense," versatile running back and kick returner Marcus Murphy said. "We all look up to Maty. We know he’s going to do a good job being a leader. He just came out and he did his job today."
But his other two passes on the first two drives didn’t come particularly close to reaching their targets, including an ill-advised throw into coverage that could have easily been intercepted. Mauk’s most egregious error came late in the first half, when he wildly flung a ball backward to stop the clock after being wrapped up by a South Dakota State defender and was fortunate to have it go out of bounds for only a seven-yard loss.
After running back Russell Hansbrough’s 10-yard touchdown run put Mizzou up 21-7 with 6:31 to play in the first quarter, the offense began to sputter with Mauk often scrambling for his life. He praised the offensive line for giving him all day to throw on several plays, but Pinkel said they also had some key missed assignments.
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He acknowledged that part of Mauk’s job is to bail out the offense in those situations, and he nearly did once with what appeared to be a spectacular completion to Murphy to convert a third-and-9 in the fourth quarter. But officials ruled the junior had stepped out of bounds first, forcing Christian Brinser’s fourth and final punt.
"It’s me and the guys out there catching the ball, we’ve got to get on the right page and that’s a big thing," Mauk said. "We can fix that."
He had three straight incompletions in the second half before Bud Sasser caught a Johnny Manziel-esque heave for a 29-yard touchdown nearly five minutes into the fourth quarter. That kind of play and overall performance by Mauk works well enough against an FCS team, even one ranked No. 10 in the preseason poll that looked capable of taking the lead before Murphy’s 102-yard kickoff return stretched the lead to 28-18.
But even if Hansbrough can repeat his career-high 126 yards Saturday, Mizzou will need better quarterback play in the SEC, if not next week at Toledo. Mauk clearly has the arm and athleticism to give the Tigers what they need at the position, so long as he can reduce his mistakes and become more efficient.