Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA —Missouri hosts Vanderbilt on Oct. 25 for its 103rd Homecoming game, but a few Tigers won’t have to wait that long to come home.
Coach Gary Pinkel returns to the school where he’s a hall of famer and quarterback Maty Mauk returns to his home state as the Tigers (1-0) take on the Toledo Rockets (1-0) today (11 a.m., ESPN-TV) in the Glass Bowl.
Pinkel coached the Rockets for 10 years, becoming the winningest coach in school history in the process. He was 73-37-3 in his time in Toledo, where his three kids graduated high school. He was inducted into the Varsity “T” Hall of Fame in 2009.
“It’s a big part of my life and career,” he said. “I’ll always be a Toledo Rocket, but obviously not this weekend. Once game times comes, trust me, you focus and you go. I’ll be able to do that.”
Mauk’s home of Kenton is a little more than an hour south of Toledo. He expects a few hundred Kentonians to turn out today, and though his family moved to Springfield to be closer to Columbia, the state of Ohio still holds a special place for the sophomore quarterback.
“It’s always going to be my home,” Mauk said. “There’s no place else I’m going to call home, so whenever I get free time, they know I’m going to be back. But right now it’s a business trip, and I’ve got to go play.”
Though Mauk is the only Ohio native on the Missouri roster, the Rockets aren’t exactly foreign to the Tigers. Toledo, a member of the Mid-American Conference, came to Faurot Field last year, where Missouri won 38-23. It was a one-point game as late as the last play of the third quarter, before tailbacks Henry Josey and Marcus Murphy punched in touchdown runs to put the game out of reach.
The Rockets actually outgained the Tigers on offense, 387-384, but Missouri had three takeaways to Toledo’s one and won the time-of-possession battle by five minutes.
The Rockets have played David to power conferences’ Goliath in the past. Toledo has defeated teams like Penn State and Michigan on the road and Purdue and ninth-ranked Pittsburgh at the Glass Bowl. Toledo last beat a top-25 team in 2012, when it defeated No. 18 Cincinnati 29-23 at home.
Pinkel said he told the team Sunday what to expect with Toledo.
“The main thing is, Toledo — just because we’re playing (a team in) the MAC, it’s not anybody we can take light,” Mauk said. “Toledo is a great football team. If you’ve looked at their history, they’ve beat big teams.”
Many of those signature wins came with Pinkel at the helm, and the players know the game means a little more for the 14th-year Missouri coach.
“He wouldn’t say it to us, but I bet it does,” Markus Golden said. “And it means a lot to me, just because I know that he coached there. So I want to go there and make sure we play good and make sure we go hard out there, just so we can represent for coach.”
Mauk added: “If you think about it, when you go back and you’re playing somebody you coached—if I went back and played my high school, it’s going to be different. But I know he’s going to do the same thing that we’re all doing. We’re going to block that out, and we’re going to go in there and prepare.”
As with the 2013 matchup, this is both teams’ second game of the season. Similarly, both teams beat Football Championship Subdivision teams that made things a little uncomfortable in their openers.
Toledo took on New Hampshire, who jumped out to a 14-3 lead prior to a 51-6 run by the Rockets.
Missouri’s FCS opponent, South Dakota State, never led, but it was a 21-18 point game before Marcus Murphy’s 100-yard kick return brought some life back into a quiet Memorial Stadium.
The Tigers would prefer not to have to worry quite as much about momentum swings today as they did against the Jackrabbits.
“Momentum is big in football,” Golden said. “Whenever you keep the momentum your way, it’s going to be a great chance that you’re going to win. That’s what we want to do. We just want to keep the momentum in our position and keep all the players hyped and be a mistake-free football team.”
Leading the momentum battle on the other side will be quarterback Phillip Ely. Though Ely did not play last year in Columbia, he actually made his Faurot Field debut in 2012 as A.J. McCarron’s backup in Alabama. He played two snaps when McCarron went down with an injury but did not throw a pass.
That isn’t likely to happen today. Ely threw for 337 yards and four touchdowns last week.
“We saw all the film (Monday),” Pinkel said. “A lot of poise. He knows what he’s doing. He doesn’t sit in the pocket too long. He gets rid of the ball. They set and throw. They don’t look around a lot.”
The Rockets’ quick-release offense has minimized the time Toledo quarterbacks spend on the ground. Toledo only allowed six sacks last season, none of which came in the game against Missouri.
“I know we got a lot of pressure on them, but I don’t remember exactly what they did to keep us from getting a sack,” Golden said. “We have to get after the quarterback this year, use pass-rushing moves and listen to what the coaches want us to do. Even if we don’t get a sack, we want to at least get pressure on them. Pressure can be just as a good as a sack. You can force a turnover.”
Toledo marks Missouri’s first road game of the year and only Mauk’s second start on the road. His first came in a win last year at Kentucky. Pinkel has high hopes for his new starter as he returns to his home state.
“I would like to think that he would just go play football,” Pinkel said. “That’s really ultimately what you have to do, and when he played against Florida or when he played against South Carolina last year or finished the game against Georgia— you’ve got to play football.
“…Obviously, he’s gonna have a lot of people there from his his hometown, but I think he’ll be fine. I’ll be disappointed if he would not be focused and ready to go. And he will be.”
THIRD AND WRONG: The Tigers were only three-for-11 on third down conversions against South Dakota State, while the Jackrabbits went five-of-eight in the second half. Missouri is looking to change those numbers as it moves forward.
“We have not been as good at third downs,” Pinkel said. “We’re working very hard at it, and that’s ultimately got to get better if we want to be a better offense. You have to stay on the field, and that’s going to (require) third downs.”
Senior receiver and co-captain Bud Sasser had a 29-yard touchdown on a third and 7, but he said there are still improvements he can make to help the cause.
“We had a few third and shorts that we didn’t convert, just not executing well, myself included,” Sasser said. “There was a couple plays in there that we called some short routes, and I converted them to longer ones, trying to have a bigger play when we really could just go for the small one, and it’s just as good.”
Murphy, who converted a third and 1 but was the target of an incomplete third-and-3 pass and came up short on third and 4, said the adjustments are doable.
“It’s just small fundamental things,” he said. “Small, fundamental mistakes. Maybe the wrong step, maybe the wrong read, but it’s all stuff we can fix. It’s minor things, and that’s the good thing. It’s just small things that we’ve got to come out, work on and improve on in the next week.”
BUCKEYE ROOTS: Pinkel and Mauk aren’t the only Tigers with Ohio backgrounds. Defensive coordinator Dave Steckel, cornerbacks coach Cornell Ford, running backs coach Brian Jones and defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski all came to Columbia from Toledo with Pinkel in 2001.
“The transition really made it much easier for us here,” Pinkel said. “I wasn’t training coaches and educating coaches on who we are and what we’re about.”
Pinkel said he had talked to Don James, his mentor at the time, to ask him about bringing coaches with him to Missouri. James told him to do it, so long as they could coach and recruit.
“The consistency of our staff has been, I think, very meaningful and one of the reasons that we’ve had the continutity that we’ve had,” Pinkel said. “Also … the same guys are recruiting the same places for 14 years, so that continuity has really helped our program mature.”
Director of football recruiting Nick Otterbacher played under Pinkel at Toledo and came to Missouri in 2004. Safeties coach Alex Grinch is from Grove City, Ohio.
NOTES: Morgan Steward sits for the second straight game with a strained hip. He is expected to be out a few more weeks. … Marcus Loud moved down a spot in the depth chart to third-string defensive end. Rickey Hatley moved outside to take his place. When asked about the change, Pinkel said bluntly, “It’s internal.” … Marcus Murphy is once again the main kick returner after backing up Ian Simon on last week’s depth chart.