Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk had gone 100 passes without a touchdown, a streak that covered nearly four games.
In fact, before Mauk connected with senior wide receiver Bud Sasser on a 13-yard score Saturday against Vanderbilt at Memorial Stadium, precisely 235 minutes and 53 seconds of game action had elapsed since a 1-yard touchdown to tight end Sean Culkin early in the fourth quarter Sept. 20 against Indiana.
Understandably, relief washed over Mauk with 2:27 remaining in the third quarter after Sasser caught a short throw near the 5-yard line, turned upfield and dove into the end zone for what proved to be the game-winning touchdown in a 24-14 victory before 65,254 fans on the Tigers’ homecoming.
“It was a little bit behind him, but Bud made a play and got in the end zone,” said Mauk, who finished 11 of 23 for 141 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. “That’s what we need him to do.”
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Missouri’s offense has struggled in SEC play, totaling fewer than 300 yards in all three games entering Saturday. That included last week’s 119-yard effort, the worst in the Gary Pinkel era, at Florida.
The Tigers, who totaled 385 yards Saturday, remain far from a well-oiled machine, but there were enough fits and starts of rhythm to beat the Commodores, who have returned to SEC doormat status after three straight seasons with a bowl appearances.
“I remember as a young coach listening to Bear Bryant at an NCAA meeting when he was giving a speech and he said that every win is a great win,” Tigers coach Gary Pinkel said. “I’ve always remembered that.”
And he told Missouri, 6-2 and 3-1 in the SEC, as much after the win.
The Tigers hadn’t ran an offensive play in the Faurot Field red zone since that Indiana game but marched right down the field against Vanderbilt, 2-6 and 0-5 in the SEC.
The game-opening drive covered 44 yards in 10 plays, ending with junior Andrew Baggett’s 37-yard field goal, after stalling at the Commodores’ 19-yard line.
Missouri — now bowl eligible for the ninth time in the last 10 seasons — went three-and-out on its next two drives, totaling three yards in six plays, before Mauk opened the team’s fourth drive with a 35-yard lob to senior Jimmie Hunt.
It was 15 more yards than Mauk threw for last week at Florida, but the rest of the drive netted minus-2 yards.
The Tigers seemed to be stuck in neutral again before committing to a run game that churned out 244 yards in 46 carries.
Led by junior running back Russell Hansbrough, Missouri marched 77 yards in 12 plays midway through the second quarter.
Hansbrough, who finished with 19 carries for 87 yards, racked up 33 yards in five carries and added a 17-yard reception.
He pushed Missouri’s lead to 10-0 when he juked off tackle right on fourth-and-1 for a 10-yard touchdown to cap the offense’s longest touchdown drive since the second quarter of that Indiana game.
During the second half, the Tigers marched 56 yards before Mauk’s touchdown to Sasser and followed that with a 61-yard drive that took 12 plays, spanning the third and fourth quarters — though it failed to produce points when Baggett missed a 42-yard field goal.
“Once he got that first touchdown pass to Bud, his confidence got up as well as the wide receivers’ confidence got up,” junior center Evan Boehm said.
Missouri’s defense had played well, allowing only 53 yards before Vanderbilt pulled within 10-7 thanks to a 10-play, 75-yard march capped by redshirt freshman Nathan Marcus’ 9-yard touchdown reception from Johnny McCrary.
Senior strong safety Braylon Webb picked off McCrary for his seventh career interception, and third in the last two games, early in the third quarter to preserve that slim lead.
Midway through the fourth quarter, the Commodores pulled within 17-14 midway through the fourth quarter on McCrary’s 29-yard hookup with C.J. Duncan only to have the beleaguered Tigers’ offense blunt the comeback bid with a 10-play, 70-yard touchdown drive.
“The main thing is, we’re not fully back to how we were, but we’re starting to execute,” Mauk said.
Sasser, who finished with five catches for 74 yards and two touchdowns, capped the drive with a one-footed touchdown grab in the back corner of the end zone.
Missouri redshirt freshman Anthony Sherrils was ejected with 3:10 remaining in the first quarter when he was flagged for targeting.