By The Associated Press
Year 2 in the Southeastern Conference has been a huge success for Missouri, but a major hurdle awaits.
The 14th-ranked and undefeated Tigers will try to keep it up against one of the nation’s top defenses — minus their most indispensable player.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Maty Mauk makes his first career start in place of injured James Franklin Saturday against No. 22 Florida.
The Gators (4-2, 3-1 SEC) lost quarterback Jeff Driskel (broken leg) in mid-September, and three other starters are out for the season. The latest subtraction was running back Matt Jones, who underwent left knee surgery earlier this week.
Missouri (6-0, 2-0) is coming off the signature win in coach Gary Pinkel’s 13 seasons, an impressive 41-26 victory at Georgia that was the school’s first road triumph over top 10 competition since 1981.
Pinkel said he won’t change the offense to account for the kid who could be running the show for a while with Franklin expected to miss 3-5 weeks. Mauk was a heralded recruit after a record-setting high school career and got his first extended SEC action after Franklin was hurt in the fourth quarter and Tigers ahead by just two points.
“He just got thrown into the fire pretty quickly,” Pinkel said. “He is a pretty poised guy. He’s thoroughly excited about this opportunity at hand.
“He has a lot of good people around him, that will step up their game and that will help him out.”
Here are five things to watch for in Florida vs. Missouri:
TIGERS RUN: Missouri aimed to have Franklin make fewer carries to keep him healthy, but he’s tied for the team lead with running back Henry Josey at 65 apiece. Josey and Russell Hansbrough, coming off his second 100-yard game of the year, need to take more of the load. Of course, Mauk likes to run, too. “They’re going to run their offense. I’m pretty sure they recruit a quarterback that’s going to fit their offense,” Florida linebacker Michael Taylor said. “No quarterback likes to get hurt.”
GATORS GROUND: Jones’ injury should mean more playing time for freshman Kelvin Taylor, son of NFL running back Fred Taylor. Junior Mack Brown leads the team with 340 yards—one more than Jones—and three touchdowns and will start. Success in the run game would take pressure off a line that’s been vulnerable handling the pass rush. “See that we had troubles against the blitz, I’d probably do the same thing,” guard Max Garcia said. “I don’t think we have a problem with strength and getting bull-rushed out there. It’s just the mental part of the game that we’ve got to get down.”
AERIAL OPTIONS: Missouri has four tall receivers, 6-foot-4 or better, all the easier to locate. “Just put that ball up in the air, man, we can go make a play,” said wide receiver Bud Sasser, whose TD pass helped Missouri pull away at Georgia. L’Damian Washington averages 75.8 yards per game, fifth-best in the SEC, and is tied for first with seven TDs. Sophomore Dorial Green-Beckham has 27 receptions with four TDs and senior Marcus Lucas has 30 catches and a TD. “It’s just a collective effort,” Lucas said. “And I think it’s paying off.”
STIFLING DEFENSE: Florida has held opponents to 10 or fewer points three times this season. LSU had scored 35 or more in six straight games, but managed 17 last week. Taylor had a career-high 10 tackles last week for a unit that’s third in the nation in total defense and has produced 3-and-outs in more than a third of the opponent’s possessions. “We’ve got one of the best offenses, so we’re going to come right at them,” Mauk said.
WEATHER WATCH: The forecast calling for cold temperatures has Florida’s attention. Quarterback Tyler Murphy said when he goes home for Christmas “it’s in the teens,” but notes “it’s kind of funny to see people around here when it is in the 60s they all have hoodies and sweatpants on. I’m the only person with shorts and a T-shirt.” Beyond noting, “not many Gators have been to Columbia, Missouri,” coach Will Muschamp said the 11:21 a.m. local-time start is a challenge.