Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
The last time Missouri hosted the South Carolina football team, the Tigers started a freshman at quarterback. It was a surprise to no one as the freshman, Maty Mauk, was filling in for injured starter James Franklin.
As the Gamecocks return to the Southeastern Conference’s northernmost Columbia today (11 a.m., SEC Network), the Tigers once again will start a freshman behind center — this time under more unexpected circumstances.
With Missouri announcing Tuesday that Mauk had been suspended for disciplinary reasons, Drew Lock will make his first collegiate start and join the Gamecocks’ Lorenzo Nunez in a battle of true freshman quarterbacks.
Lock has played in each of Missouri’s four games — including a seven-play, 43-yard drive in the Tigers’ loss last Saturday at Kentucky — though never more than three drives in a game. The Lee’s Summit native will likely get an entire game to himself today, as Missouri (3-1, 0-1 SEC) hopes to avoid losing consecutive games for the first time since November 2012.
Lock jumped from sixth to second on the Tigers’ depth chart with a strong showing in camp, including a 74.5 completion percentage in scrimmage play. In seven drives this season, he has completed 15-of-25 passes for 225 yards, one touchdown and an interception.
His counterpart Nunez had his first start last week in a 31-14 defeat of Central Florida. Nunez threw two touchdowns in the third quarter and ran for 123 yards to lead the Gamecocks (2-2, 1-1 SEC) to a win. With 239 yards on 30 carries (8.0 avg.) he is currently South Carolina’s leading rusher.
“Obviously Nunez provides some spark in the running game from that position,” Missouri defensive coordinator Barry Odom said. “They weren’t doing as much of that before, but he’s a talented kid, and the second half of last week, he didn’t look like a freshman.”
Nunez is the third quarterback to start a game for the Gamecocks this season, after sophomore Connor Mitch started in their win against North Carolina and their loss to Kentucky, and junior Perry Orth started in their loss at Georgia.
“They’re very fortunate to have a guy that’s third (string) starting out the year to come out and play at such a high level,” Missouri defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said. “He’s definitely a guy that can run the ball … so we’ve obviously got to (have) all hands on deck. He certainly won’t be restricted to one phase between running and passing.”
The Tigers had some trouble at Kentucky containing the legs of quarterback Patrick Towles, who won’t be compared to Michael Vick anytime soon. Towles had some key runs to extend drives and scored on a 14-yard run.
“I think it’s missed tackles,” Kuligowski said. “Of course, that’s part of your adjustments is getting guys in place to make tackles, but the one that he scored for a touchdown, we had two guys right there. … Those are obviously execution errors, but our job as coaches is to get them to execute.”
The Tigers can’t afford to have all eyes on the quarterback, either, as South Carolina receiver Pharoh Cooper is capable of inflicting damage from all over the field. The first-team All-SEC receiver is averaging 6.8 yards a carry with a touchdown this year and has 17 receptions for 220 yards and two scores.
“You recognize his ability, but also you recognize that fundamentally throughout the course of the game, you’ve got to be on point, because he is such an explosive player,” Odom said. “He can capitalize on a misstep pretty quickly.”
The Tigers’ defense could be without linebacker Kentrell Brothers, the nation’s leading tackler. Brothers injured his ankle in the second half of last week’s game and is listed as questionable.
Offensively, the Tigers will be without right tackle Nate Crawford (ankle) and tight end Sean Culkin (knee), both starters.
Lock will try to revitalize an offense that currently ranks in the bottom 10 percent nationally in points per game. The Tigers did improve slightly in the loss to Kentucky, gaining 338 total yards on offense, their most against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent this season.
“(Offensive coordinator Josh) Henson came in and said, ‘We made some steps. We made a couple steps in that game, and that’s one positive we can take away,’” Lock said. “Because you don’t want to ever take completely all negatives from a game. You want to have some positives and we made some positive steps, and that’s what we’re going to kind of need to focus on.”
The Gamecocks’ previous trip to Faurot Field resulted in perhaps the Tigers’ most devastating loss since joining the SEC. In the October 2013 game, No. 5 Missouri blew a 17-0 lead and fell in double overtime as South Carolina was propelled by resurgent quarterback Connor Shaw. Kuligowski said the current Gamecocks use Nunez in the same way they used to employ Shaw, who did not start the 2013 contest because of a sprained knee. The game was then-redshirt freshman Mauk’s second start.
The next matchup, this time in Columbia, S.C., had just as much drama if not the stakes. Coming off a disappointing loss at home to Indiana, the Tigers trailed 20-7 with less than 8 minutes to play. A Missouri offense that had struggled all day — the Tigers threw for just 132 yards total — managed to put together two touchdowns in 6 minutes to steal a victory.
Despite the exciting finishes in recent years — and the fact the Mayors’ Cup trophy is on the line in this Battle of the Columbias — Missouri coach Gary Pinkel doesn’t place much importance on the budding potential rivalry.
“It’s the next game,” he said. “They’re a great team, and we’re going to play a great team next week, because in this league they’re all good. They’re in our division, and I’m sure we all battle each other. There’s some great battles and we’ve had a couple really hard-fought games the last couple games, so we’ll see what happens.”
Notes: Junior offensive lineman Malik Cuellar is also suspended for today’s game. His and Mauk’s status will be evaluated after the game. … Missouri is 3-2 all-time against South Carolina, 1-2 since joining the SEC. The Tigers beat South Carolina 38-31 in the 2005 Independence Bowl. … Jon Hoke is the Gamecocks’ co-defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach. Hoke coached defensive backs at Missouri from 1994-98.