Progress is the hallmark of spring football, which means the last month has been a successful one for Missouri.
The Tigers wrapped up spring practice Saturday with the annual Black & Gold Game.
History will record that the second string, which started with a 14-point lead, claimed a 17-10 victory in front of an announced crowd of 30,117 at Memorial Stadium.
But it was the improvement MU showed, particularly on offense, since the first scrimmage April 4 that means the most with an eye toward the 2015 season and the quest for a third consecutive SEC East division crown.
Never miss a local story.
It was important for the defense to make strides under new defensive coordinator Barry Odom, an MU grad and former Gary Pinkel assistant who took over for Dave Steckel in December.
To that end, Odom was pleased.
“From practice one to 15, we made steps every day in the right direction, which is what you want to do, and hopefully at the end of spring you can say that,” he said. “There’s still areas that we need to work on obviously, and we will this summer, but I’m excited about the foundation we have in our group.”
Of course, as the spring progressed, it became clear that the offense was lagging behind, which made the second quarter quite encouraging for quarterback Maty Mauk and company.
Playing against the second-string defense, Mauk engineered the first half’s only two scoring drives during the second 10-minute quarter.
Missouri managed only three first downs and no points on its first three drives before finishing with a flurry.
The Tigers’ first-team offense broke through when Andrew Baggett capped a seven-play, 33-yard drive with a 36-yard field goal.
Two 8-yard runs by Russell Hansbrough, who finished with six carries for 36 yards, and Mauk’s 12-yard pass to tight end Jason Reese set up the points.
Missouri’s offense kept the momentum rolling on the next series, a 63-yard match that took eight plays — all passes or runs by Mauk, who finished with 40 yards on six carries.
Mauk scrambled three times, including two first downs on the drive, and completed four straight passes before netting only the fourth offensive touchdown in three spring scrimmages with a 3-yard fade to sophomore J’Mon Moore.
“J’Mon probably wouldn’t have caught that fade (on) day one,” said Mauk, who finished nine of 14 for 68 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. “Now, he’s starting to realize what he can really do.”
The same can be said for the Tigers’ offense as a whole.
Playing for much of the spring without three presumptive starters — left tackle Connor McGovern, slot receiver Nate Brown and tight end Sean Culkin — MU remains a work in progress on that side of the ball, but the gains are evident.
“Offensively, we moved the linemen around all spring,” Pinkel said. “There’s a lot of adjustments — receivers and such — but again, we’re a lot better than we were weeks ago. But we’ve got a ways to go. Now, can we get there? There’s no question about it, we can get there, and we have to get there.”
Backup quarterback Eddie Printz also had a solid day, completing 12 of 16 passes for 73 yards.
Third-string wide receiver Raymond Wingo, who was playing cornerback as recently as two weeks ago, led all pass-catchers with three receptions for 53 yards.
Cornerback David Johnson and backup linebacker Joey Burkett led the defense with six tackles each, while Marcus Loud, Charles Harris, Spencer Williams and Justin Grava each recorded a sack.
Despite playing exclusively out of its base, a product of the game being televised on the SEC Network, Missouri’s first-string defense didn’t permit any points.
“We didn’t run anything,” linebacker Michael Scherer said. “The game’s on TV. People could show up. You never know who’s watching. … There’s a lot of things that go into it, but it was very vanilla today.”
Still, it was a step forward — and that’s what matters most.
“We progressed a lot,” Scherer said of the spring as a whole. “We added a lot of new stuff, and it worked. Everybody believed in it and we did it, and we’re a lot better because of it. We’ve just got to keep it moving.”
Missouri doled out its spring awards for the most improved players at each position.
On offense, lineman Nate Crawford, receiver DeSean Blair, tight end Reese, running back Ish Witter and quarterback Printz were the winners.
On defense, lineman Rickey Hatley, linebacker Donavin Newsom, cornerback Aarion Penton and safety Anthony Sherrils, a Hogan Prep graduate, earned the plaques.