COLUMBIA, Mo. — James Franklin got the better of Johnny Football while helping No. 5 Missouri reach the SEC championship game. He’s having an outstanding senior season, going 8-0 as the starting quarterback for one of the nation’s best offenses.
And if the Tigers are forced to go without Franklin for any part of Saturday’s game against third-ranked Auburn, they can always turn to Maty Mauk.
“Having a backup quarterback for one-third of your season that’s a redshirt freshman and coming out 3-1, almost 4-0, it’s pretty remarkable,” coach Gary Pinkel said Monday. “We were very, very fortunate.”
No way Missouri makes it this far without the backup who’s returned to making cameo appearances and likely will get one series early in the second quarter on Saturday against Auburn (11-1, 7-1).
Mauk finished the job at Georgia after Franklin was sidelined with a shoulder injury. The redshirt freshman entered with the Tigers clinging to precarious two-point lead in the fourth quarter and led the way to a 15-point triumph that was the school’s first road win over a top-10 team since 1981.
Mauk was 3-1 as the stand-in starter, an extended opportunity that can only help down the road.
“James is a little bit more reserved and has more of a calming presence and Maty has a little bit of a crazed look in his eye and intensity that I can very much identify with,” offensive guard Max Copeland said. “I love playing for both of them.”
Mauk threw five touchdown passes in a victory over Kentucky, and did his part in wins over No. 22 Florida and Tennessee. The lone loss was in overtime at home against No. 20 South Carolina when kicker Andrew Baggett hit the upright on a 24-yard field goal.
Franklin will be making his third straight start this week after helping clinch the SEC East in a 28-21 victory over Texas A&M and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel on Saturday night. Missouri (11-1, 7-1) had a slow start offensively, trailing 14-7 at the half, but Franklin ended up with two touchdown passes and no interceptions to go with a season-best 80 yards rushing on 18 carries.
“I’m real proud of him, how he’s competed, and all the things he’s done to get back to 100 percent,” Pinkel said. “All that he went through hardens him a little bit, which is good.
“He’s physically tough, we all know that.”
On the year, Franklin has completed 66.9 percent of his passes for 16 touchdowns with four interceptions. He remains a formidable rushing threat, with 412 yards, a 4.5-yard average and three touchdowns.
“I don’t mind if I run it every time or not at all,” Franklin said. “I’m happy to do it. Being healthy and having the success we’ve had after last year, I’m not surprised.”
Before fall workouts, Pinkel planned to run Franklin less in hopes of keeping him healthy. But there’s no ignoring that aspect of his game.
“Last week I thought we kind of got the ball rolling a little bit by him running a little bit,” quarterbacks coach Andy Hill said. “There’s a lot of good things he does.”
It can be tough duty, coming in cold. But Mauk has completed 51 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions.
“Shoot, he came in real cold against Georgia and did a pretty good job, didn’t he?” Pinkel said. “It’s not going to be perfect every time he goes in there, OK?”
Often, Mauk’s lone series has begun inside the Missouri 20. Mauk got rare favorable field position at the Texas A&M 37 after a turnover, but scrambled too much and got sacked on first down, and the Tigers ended up punting.