COLUMBIA, Mo. — A pair of backup quarterbacks will have a big say in the Southeastern Conference East Division race this weekend.
After defeating Florida 36-17 in his first career start, Missouri redshirt freshman Maty Mauk again leads the No. 5 Tigers as James Franklin recovers from a separated throwing shoulder. Opposing him will be South Carolina junior Dylan Thompson, who hopes to save the No. 20 Gamecocks’ season as Connor Shaw looks on with a sprained left knee.
Mauk gave Missouri a two-game cushion in the division last week by throwing for 295 yards against a Gators defense that previously allowed only 152 passing yards per game.
“If you watched him play in high school, that’s what he looked like,” coach Gary Pinkel said. “The bigger the game, the better he played.”
Mauk finds himself as the most tenured available quarterback for the Tigers (7-0, 3-0 SEC).
Third-stringer Corbin Berkstresser, a sophomore who played in 10 games last year, tore his left medial meniscus in his knee during practice Oct. 15 and is out indefinitely.
Down two games to Missouri with only three conference games remaining, South Carolina (5-2, 3-2) would be virtually eliminated if it lost consecutive games for the second time since 2010 after losing 23-21 at Tennessee. The Tigers would need to lose their remaining four games to reopen the door.
Thompson is no stranger to playing despite making only his third career start. He’s participated in 21 games and engineered wins over East Carolina, Clemson and Michigan last season. He’s thrown for 421 yards this year after 1,027 in 2012-13.
“I think it helps, but it’s a new team, new game,” he said. “Missouri’s a great team, they’ve got a good crowd. We have to be ready for that. This week’s the biggest game we’ve played yet.”
The SEC’s leading rusher is enjoying a breakout season. Averaging 125.6 rushing yards per game, the Gamecocks’ sophomore has run for 100 yards against every opponent except Vanderbilt. If he’s successful Saturday, he’ll force Missouri to put more defenders up front and open the passing game for Thompson.
Reversal of fortune
Last year, Missouri played in its first SEC road game at South Carolina, losing 31-10 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicated. Shaw threw for 249 yards and two touchdowns and completed a school-record 20 consecutive passes. In just their second season in the league, the Tigers now appear to be the team ready to pounce. Wins at home over the Gamecocks and Tennessee next week would clinch the division.
Missouri leads the SEC in sacks (23) while South Carolina has yielded 10 in its past three games. Tigers end Michael Sam ranks first individually with nine and 13 tackles for loss. All the pressure upfront allows Missouri to generally rush four, freeing defenders to sit back in coverage. The Gamecocks must contain their opponent’s defensive line and give Thompson time to throw.
Missouri relies on 234.4 rushing yards per game to take some pressure off its quarterbacks, and is able to do so because of its trio of running backs. But both sophomore Russell Hansbrough (turf toe) and junior Marcus Murphy (concussion) suffered injuries against Florida last week, and junior Henry Josey survived a scare with his surgically reconstructed left knee. All three are expected to play this week, but their health will be closely monitored.
Missouri is 7-0 after defeating ranked opponents in consecutive weeks for the first time since 1976. Another win this week over No. 20 South Carolina would make it the first Tigers team since 1939 to win three consecutive. A victory would also give the team its first 8-0 start since 1960 and first 4-0 start in conference since 1968.