COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri football coach Gary Pinkel tells his players that wins in November will be remembered.
With only one Southeastern Conference loss, the Tigers (6-2, 3-1) sit a half-game behind Georgia in the Eastern Division with four games left. Last year, the team went 4-0 in November to clinch the division in just its second season in the league.
"This is the time when it’s about championships," Pinkel said.
Missouri opens the final third of this season by hosting Kentucky (5-3, 2-3) on Saturday before a week off and trips to Texas A&M and Tennessee. The Tigers then finish back at home on the day after Thanksgiving against Arkansas.
Despite its remaining opponents having a combined 4-14 record in the SEC, the team knows it needs more consistency on offense to replicate its success from 2013.
The Tigers rank 13th in the league with 331.4 total yards per game but took a step forward after gaining 385 against Vanderbilt in a 24-14 win last Saturday. Missouri totaled just 266 yards in its previous two weeks combined.
There were questions about confidence when the offense only scored one touchdown in that two-game period, with quarterback Maty Mauk receiving the bulk of attention. The sophomore completed 11 of 23 passes for 141 yards against the Commodores, including a 25-yard toss to receiver Bud Sasser in the corner of the end zone with two minutes remaining.
Mauk only threw for 20 yards at Florida on Oct. 18, describing the outing as "frustrating."
"Did any day I walk out there and feel like, `Oh, man, he’s fragile like he’s on eggshells?’ I never felt that way about Maty," offensive coordinator Josh Henson said. "That’s just not Maty Mauk. That’s not who he is as a person."
Missouri nonetheless relied on its rushing attack against Vanderbilt, using 46 rushes compared to 23 passing attempts. Running backs Marcus Murphy and Russell Hansbrough ran 93 and 87 yards, respectively.
The Tigers retained possession for more than 31 minutes, the first time in four games they held the ball longer than their opponent. They also committed 14 penalties for 100 yards. Henson insisted the team is taking a week-by-week approach, and that the game plan isn’t necessarily to become a run-oriented spread offense.
In any event, the offensive side only needs to look at the team’s defense for motivation. Despite a 34-0 setback to Georgia on Oct. 11, the Tigers lead the SEC with 4.1 yards allowed per play in the conference.
Sophomore linebacker Michael Scherer ranks third in the league with 70 tackles this season and says the unit tried to complicate matters earlier in the season before teammates started focusing on simply where they needed to be on the field.
Up front, defensive ends Golden and Shane Ray have combined for 14 sacks and 23 tackles for loss. While Ray acknowledges that the offense "needs a little bit of help sometimes," Golden says statistics can’t predict the team’s performance in November.
"This is when you finish," Pinkel said. "If you’re a competitor, this should just fire you up. This is the position you want to be in. I know I’m ready."