As spring games go, Missouri’s Black and Gold Game on Saturday at Memorial Stadium was a thriller.
Of course, the final score — the reserves, who started with a 14-point lead, rallied for a 21-20 victory in the closing seconds — doesn’t matter much.
The Black and Gold Game effectively was the 15th and final spring practice for a Tigers team that is eager to build off a 12-2 season in 2013, which included an outright Southeastern Conference East division title and a Cotton Bowl victory.
Thus, the spring is less about winning than it is about preparing to win.
“It’s all about getting the right personnel in the right spots and seeing who, after 15 practices now, is ready — and he might not be a starter yet, but he’s ready to play and win a championship in the SEC or he’s getting close,” Tigers coach Gary Pinkel said.
It’s been a tumultuous few weeks for Missouri with receiver Dorial Green-Beckham’s dismissal and two arrests, defensive backs Aarion Penton and Shaun Rupert for marijuana possession, but it didn’t seem to affect the Tigers on the field.
Sophomore quarterback Maty Mauk showed once again that’s he’s ready to take Missouri’s reins.
Mauk led the Tigers to points on all three drives in the first half, which featured two 10-minute periods. He left at halftime — with the starters trailing 14-13 — after completing 11 of 15 passes for 129 yards.
Mauk didn’t throw for a touchdown, though he did run one in on a 3-yard option keeper, and finished the spring without any interceptions in Missouri’s three public scrimmages. He finished the spring 41 of 64 — 64.1 percent — for 446 yards with a touchdown.
“It’s coming together,” said senior running back Marcus Murphy, who had a game-best 38 yards rushing in nine carries. “We’ve been working hard all spring, and we’re going to keep going in the summer and in the fall. We’re just going to get better.”
Meanwhile, Missouri’s first-team defense played spectacularly.
The Tigers’ second-string offense converted on third and seven with a 33-yard pass from junior quarterback Corbin Berkstresser on the opening drive, but the first-string defense didn’t permit another first down and dominated its remaining three drives.
“On that 33-yard pass, I definitely sacked him, but there was no call,” said junior defensive end Shane Ray, a Bishop Miege graduate. “It’s all right. I think we did really good today as a defense, but we’ve just got to keep working.”
Despite playing without several key starters on defense, including senior defensive tackle Matt Hoch (ankle) and junior middle linebacker Kentrell Brothers (shoulder), Missouri’s starting defense allowed minus-two yards on 11 plays aside from Berkstresser’s bomb to senior wide receiver Gavin Otte.
Ray and his counterpart, senior Markus Golden, each racked up a sack for the Tigers, who totaled six sacks altogether.
Golden also threw sophomore running back Morgan Steward for a 5-yard loss, while sophomore defensive tackle Josh Augusta was credited with a sack of third-string quarterback Eddie Printz while working with the first-string.
“Our progress this spring, basically rebuilding with an entirely new defense, I think we did a great job,” Ray said. “Guys have started to learn their roles and are becoming playmakers. Through the summer, we’re going to keep fixing a couple bugs. But, as a defense, I think we’ve come a long way and I think we’re going to be pretty good this season.”
The fireworks came late when Missouri’s “starters” took the lead for the first time on a 93-yard touchdown pass from redshirt freshman quarterback Trent Hosick, a Staley graduate, to sophomore Eric Laurent with 36 seconds remaining.
However, the reserves pulled out the victory when true freshman quarterback Marvin Zanders answered with an 80-yard touchdown run with 23 seconds left, which proved to be the difference after the extra point was added.
“It’s good to see young guys coming out and making plays,” Ray said. “All your family’s here, and they want to see you do something. Those guys that are making plays, I’m sure they’re happy and their families are happy, so it’s good for the team.”