COLUMBIA, Mo. • The last time a redshirt freshman quarterback made his first career start for Missouri the results weren’t all that bad. Last fall, Corbin Berkstresser, a last-minute replacement for a sore-shouldered James Franklin, avoided enough mistakes to deliver a 24-20 victory over Arizona State, a team that finished the season with eight wins — three more than Mizzou.
But that was the highlight for the rookie quarterback. With Franklin in and out of the lineup the rest of the season, the offense could barely function with Berkstresser at the controls behind a jumbled, injury-ravaged offensive line.
Berkstresser played entire games against Alabama and Texas A&M, replaced Franklin midway through games against Vanderbilt and Syracuse and gave way to Franklin in the second half against Kentucky. For the season, he played 69 possessions, leading the Tigers to points on just 19 — 12 touchdowns and seven field goals. The redshirt freshman simply wasn’t ready to lead Missouri’s offense, especially behind a battered offensive line.
A year later, the 14th-ranked Tigers (6-0, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) again turn to a redshirt freshman quarterback, but this time believe they’re better equipped to survive Franklin’s loss to injury.
“Well, we’re 6-0,” quarterbacks coach Andy Hill said.
That’s a good place to begin to explain Missouri’s confidence heading into today’s showdown with No. 22 Florida (4-2, 3-1). Unlike last season, which spiraled quickly with an 0-4 start in league play, the Tigers have tangible stakes invested in their performance today. For one, a win will keep Mizzou alone in first place in the SEC Eastern Division.
That’s something few outside of Gary Pinkel’s program could have envisioned a month ago.
“I thought we were going to have a pretty good football team,” he said. “I don’t know why other people didn’t. I thought we were going to have a pretty good team. The more you win any time, whether it’s this year or prior years, you gain confidence from winning. Your expectation level is pretty high.”
That extends to Mizzou’s belief in quarterback Maty Mauk, who replaced Franklin in the fourth quarter Saturday at Georgia and added to Mizzou’s lead with two touchdown drives to preserve a landmark 41-26 victory, a rare road win against a top-10 team and the program’s first high-profile win as a member of the SEC.
With Franklin out three to five weeks with a sprained throwing shoulder, Mauk gets the Gators for his encore. The same Gators who rank among the nation’s top four teams in yards allowed per game (253.3), rush defense (83.3), pass defense (152.0), pass efficiency (85.5 rating) and points allowed (13.0).
But with a week to prepare, on top of an entire spring and portions of preseason camp running the No. 1 offense, Mauk knows he inherits a better situation than Berkstresser’s fate in 2012.
“Last year, you look at it, James got hurt, but how many other offensive linemen were hurt?” he said. “Last year we got hit by a wrecking ball. This year, everyone’s healthy.”
Against Florida — and again, next week when No. 11 South Carolina comes to Faurot Field — the Tigers won’t divert from their playbook despite Mauk’s inexperience. Missouri has a robust running game, a surplus of playmakers at receiver and an offensive coordinator in Josh Henson committed to protecting the quarterback with tight end formations and fewer empty backfields.
Mauk has completed only five of six passes for 41 yards, but with a knack for extending plays with his feet, Mauk gives the offense mobility in the pocket, more than Berkstresser offered last season.
“Maty, one of his biggest strengths is he’s just a playmaker when things break down,” Henson said. “When maybe protection’s not as good or we get covered, he has the ability to extend the play and make some nice plays where maybe his feet aren’t set and he’s moving around out of the pocket.
“I think one of the things that Maty brings is a confidence and a calmness. You watch, in the situation he went into the (Georgia) game, and I don’t know how many guys would have been able to do what he did.”
With Franklin out this week and probably a few more, Pinkel used the opportunity to challenge the rest of his team to play better in his absence. The Tigers have steadily improved since their last home game, a 41-19 win over Arkansas State on Sept. 28, and have since scored two road SEC victories, starting with a 51-28 win at Vanderbilt on Oct. 5.
“I think our offensive players will 100 percent support Maty Mauk,” Pinkel said. “And how about them playing at a little higher level, every one of them? OK? Maybe that’s where we should start.”
Pinkel said he blamed himself for Missouri’s inability to recover from last year’s injuries. This time around, players don’t expect the same kind of meltdown, not with an otherwise healthy offense and so much to play for in the conference race.
“Everyone in this building, the training staff and everything … we feel really bad for James and hurt for him,” receiver Bud Sasser said. “But we know Maty can step up and play and perform as well as he needs to.”