Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA — Missouri and Vanderbilt are in two very different postitions entering today’s game at Faurot Field.
Vanderbilt (2-5) sits in the basement of the Southeastern Conference’s East Division. Missouri (5-2), meanwhile, resides in second and retains hope of winning the division for the second straight year.
Nonetheless, the Tigers and Commodores are essentially dealing with the same problem: The loss of James Franklin.
One James Franklin, the former Vanderbilt coach, left Nashville for Happy Valley to coach Penn State. Vanderbilt’s recruiting class initially dropped from 20 commits to nine, and the Commodores have struggled since, losing by a combined 89 points in conference play.
The other James Franklin, the former Missouri quarterback who graduated and was recently released by the Detroit Lions, left Missouri with sophomore Maty Mauk as starting quarterback.
At the time of Franklin’s departure, not many of the Missouri faithful were worried about the transition. Franklin left on an ugly note, completing 15-of-40 passes with no touchdowns and an interception in Missouri’s Cotton Bowl victory. Meanwhile, Mauk had filled in for an injured Franklin during a four-game stretch and looked more than capable.
Yet Franklin’s 37.5 completion percentage in his last hurrah has become all but the norm for Missouri. After a strong start in non-conference play, Mauk has yet to pass for a touchdown against a Southeastern Conference opponent, throwing five interceptions and completing — you guessed it — 37 percent of his passes.
Given Vanderbilt’s defensive struggles this year — the Commodores have allowed 34 points per game, 100th in the nation — it would seem important for the Missouri offense to get something established in its Homecoming game, wouldn’t it?
“It’s important to get something established every week, OK?” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “There’s nothing magical here. I’ve been here before. You keep working hard, and you stay positive.”
The Tigers are coming off a 42-13 drubbing of Florida, but don’t let the score deceive you. Four touchdowns came off returns by the Tigers’ defense or special teams, and the offense accounted for just 119 yards — only 20 through the air.
Pinkel wasn’t exactly gregarious following Missouri’s third straight game in which it failed to put up 300 yards of offense. Did anything encourage the Missouri coach about his offense’s performance in the Florida win?
“Yeah, we’re working real hard to improve our offense,” Pinkel said. “So, that’s what we’re doing. Working real hard.”
How did Mauk do in terms of deciding when to stay in the pocket and when to scramble — something the sophomore has struggled with in his first year as full-time starter?
“I thought he did pretty good,” Pinkel said. “Better.”
Any reason backup quarterback Eddie Printz hasn’t seen any snaps in garbage time, despite Mauk’s struggles?
“No,” Pinkel said.
Senior receiver Bud Sasser was a bit more talkative.
“We knew (after the game) we still had stuff to work on and not to be complacent with this win at all,” he said. “Really, we’re proud of our special teams and defense for playing just a heck of a game … (but) I don’t want to see my unit struggling. At all. Ever. And when you see that, you just know that that’s stuff that you have to work on.”
No Missouri player was willing to concede a matchup with floundering Vanderbilt could make for a prime opportunity to renew some confidence in the Tigers’ offense, using the “don’t take anyone lightly” axiom for all it’s worth.
“You saw that against Indiana. They have been struggling ever since we played them, but they managed to beat us, because we didn’t bring our best game,” linebacker Michael Scherer said. “So, you can’t really look at who you’re playing that much and look at their record and let it go off that. You’ve got to focus on what you have to do and execute a game plan to the best you can, or else you can beat by anybody.”
Defensively, the Tigers simply need to do what they’ve done in all three of their SEC games: limit big plays. Missouri has not yet allowed a run of more than 20 yards against a conference opponent, and SEC opponents are averaging just 333 yards per game against Missouri, third best in the conference.
The Tigers would like nothing more than to put everything together on Homecoming, especially considering Missouri hasn’t won at home since Sept. 13.
“We have to win this game,” center Evan Boehm said. “We’ve got to get the ‘Zou rocking again, and that’s our main focus. We’ve got to go out there, and we’ve got to worry about the Missouri Tigers, but at the same time we’ve got to have a large crowd, and we’ve got to get it back to the old Mizzou way.”
Vanderbilt redshirt freshman Johnny McCray will make his first career start at quarterback. Sophomore Patton Robinette has been cleared medically but has not played since suffering a concussion in September.
McCray will be the fourth quarterback to start for the Commodores this season. Missouri faced multiple quarterbacks last week against Florida.
“They’ve had some quarterback injuries and such, so we’re not really sure what’s going to happen there,” Pinkel said. “You’ve just got to be prepared for everything. What you do is you go look at, any time a quarterback’s played, you look at the plays that he’s run, compare that to another quarterback, and then if there are adjustments you should make, you make them, and if not, you don’t.”
Notes: Missouri tailback Morgan Steward is out once again with a hip injury. He has yet to play this season. Wesley Leftwich returned to the depth chart after missing the Florida game with a strained groin. … Today marks Missouri’s 103rd Homecoming. Missouri has planned a black-and-yellow “Tiger stripe” arrangement for Memorial Stadium’s sections. … The road team has won each of the two games between Missouri and Vanderbilt since the Tigers joined the SEC. The two teams played four times prior to 2012. In the 1950s, Vanderbilt defeated Missouri (12-8 in 1958) and the teams played to a tie (7-7 in 1957). In the 1890s, Missouri won both contests (26-6 in 1896 and 16-0 in 1895).