Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — Scheduling a bye typically affords a football team one week of rest and recovery prior to a week of transitioning back into the swing of things.
But for the Missouri Tigers, the 11 days since their last game have been anything but a vacation.
A day after Missouri’s last game, a loss at Vanderbilt, quarterback Maty Mauk was reinstated from his four-game suspension. Two days later, he split time at first-team quarterback with freshman Drew Lock in practice, seemingly creating more confusion as to who the team’s field general would be going forward.
By the following Sunday, Mauk was again suspended, this time for the rest of the season.
All of which, of course, brings us to tonight, when Missouri must deal with the biggest disruption of all to a supposed two-week lull: a game with the Mississippi State Bulldogs. The Tigers host the Bulldogs (8 p.m., ESPN) in their first Thursday night game since 2009.
The Tigers (4-4, 1-4) are looking to snap a three-game losing streak during which they failed to score a touchdown and fell out of contention for the Southeastern Conference’s East Division title for the first time since 2012. Mississippi State (6-2, 2-2), meanwhile, was listed at No. 20 on Tuesday in the season’s first College Football Playoff rankings and hopes to inch its way upward with a fourth consecutive victory.
The Tigers are in search of two more wins to earn bowl eligibility, and if they hope to pick one up tonight, they will likely need some help from their offense. While the Missouri defense has been stout — allowing fewer points per game than every team but Wisconsin and Michigan — its efforts haven’t been quite enough to outweigh the team’s anemic performance on offense.
Since Ish Witter ran in a 1-yard score Oct. 3 against South Carolina, Missouri has gone 40 consecutive drives without a touchdown. In the subsequent losses to Florida, Georgia and Vanderbilt, Lock has completed just 41 percent of his passes, managing only 402 passing yards and no touchdowns to go with two interceptions. Still, the true freshman is remaining upbeat.
“It’s definitely something that we’ve realized in the past couple games, being out there and only scoring three and six (points), which is obviously disappointing,” Lock said. “But I don’t necessarily think we’re all around here standing around saying, ‘(Crud), we haven’t scored in 40 drives.’ We’re thinking we’re going to score on the 41st drive.”
Despite the quarterback chaos over the break, Lock said he enjoyed getting to go home to Lee’s Summit and relax. Highlights included seeing his dog, Truman, and having his mom make his favorite dessert, an eclair cake with vanilla pudding and graham cracker crust.
Of course, Lock found some time for work between cakes and canines.
“We watched a lot of film, which helped us out a lot,” he said. “I had to watch a lot of film of myself, too, be (my own) biggest critic.”
The Missouri offense has left plenty of room for criticism this season; the Tigers are scoring fewer points per game than every team in the nation but the 0-9 Central Florida Knights.
Receiver Nate Brown said the time off gave the offense a chance to do a little more soul-searching.
“I think the bye week came at a good time, for us to just take a step back, figure out exactly what’s going on,” he said, “instead of just going week to week, not really being able to focus on what the issue is.”
On the other end, the defense has had its hands full preparing for Mississippi State Dak Prescott, the team’s leading rusher and the second-leading passer in the SEC.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel called Prescott “one of the best quarterbacks in the country that’s playing at that kind of a level.”
“He presents a lot of problems,” Pinkel said. “No question about that.”
Having defeated Troy, Louisiana Tech and Kentucky beforehand, the Bulldogs also had an open schedule on Halloween weekend. Coach Dan Mullen noted booking a mid-week game essentially gives his team a mini-bye on either side of the contest.
Pinkel declined to read too much into the Tigers’ current itinerary.
“We don’t say, ‘This is a real positive situation,’ or ‘This is a negative situation,’” he said. “It’s just the way it is, and it’s out in front of us.”
Missouri last played a Thursday night game in 2009, a 27-12 loss to Nebraska that began a three-game losing streak. The Bulldogs have played four Thursday night games in the years since, two each in 2011 and 2013. SEC Network’s “SEC Nation” crew has set up shop in Columbia for the cross-division showdown.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” Brown said. “It’s my first Thursday night game, we don’t have too many night games, and it’s always a different kind of energy at night when everybody’s out there.”
Lock said he once played a Thursday night game while at Lee’s Summit High School, and his Tigers scored 77 points in a win against Kearney.
“That was a pretty fun game,” he said.
So, does he expect a repeat performance tonight?
“I don’t know,” he said. “It’d be nice if we did, without a doubt.”