Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk became something of a cult hero last season when he won three of four games stepping in for injured starter James Franklin.
Fans dubbed Mauk’s exploits “Mauktober” and his unpredictable, gunslinger style drew comparisons — deserved or not — to former Texas A&M star and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.
Mauk was becoming something of a rock star.
Fans showered him with praise on social media and created memes about Mauk as an ode to his greatness, but celebrity is a fickle thing.
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When his play took a nosedive as Missouri moved into conference play this season, the mob turned on Mauk, who presents an icy cool exterior to the world but admitted Monday that the negativity during the last two months ago took a toll.
“I was definitely upset at times,” Mauk said. “It’s funny how one week, everybody’s there, and the next week, you play a bad game and it’s totally different. Everyone’s against you. … I usually don’t get mad about stuff, but that bothered me.”
Mauk, who also has dealt with an injury to his throwing shoulder for more than a month, would occasionally retweet insults on Twitter. He was trying to use it as fuel, but it wasn’t working as his numbers got progressively worse against South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
There were calls for backup Eddie Printz to replace Mauk, though Pinkel never seemed inclined to bench Mauk and always publicly supported his quarterback.
“I told him when he was going through this that this is something that he’s going to learn from, and it’s going to make him better,” Pinkel said. “No one likes going through adversity, but don’t question your ability. The most important thing is keep very focused on making yourself a better football player. I think that’s what he did.”
Mauk started the season like gangbusters.
During the nonconference schedule, Mauk was on fire, completing 77 of 125 passes, a crisp 61.6 percent, for 978 yards with 14 touchdowns and four interceptions.
He became a way-too-early dark horse candidate for the Heisman. It seemed like “Mauktober” would never end.
Then came SEC play and a sobering reminder that Mauk was, in fact, only a sophomore and had only started four college games entering the season.
Mauk completed only 12 of 34 passes for 132 yards at South Carolina and that was the high point of a three-game run that included a five-turnover debacle against Georgia and a six-of-18, 20-yard performance at Florida.
Amazingly, Missouri won two of those games.
Mauk’s bomb to senior wide receiver Bud Sasser ignited the largest fourth-quarter comeback for a victory in Tigers history against the Gamecocks and four return touchdowns buoyed MU past the Gators.
“I developed a lot of confidence over the years of playing, but it’s just something — from a quarterback and leader standpoint — you can’t let things (mistakes) affect you,” Mauk said. “Everybody’s looking at you and they’re going to go off of you.”
Still, Mauk, who left Kenton (Ohio) High School with national high school records for passing yards, touchdown passes, completions and total yards, was struggling for really the first time as a quarterback.
“It wasn’t all him,” Pinkel said. “We had some receiver issues. We had some offensive line issues — a lot of things in throwing the football, efficiency — but I’m proud of how he’s battled back through it.”
Mauk had to learn a new way to play the position. He’d always used his legs to his advantage, but with protection issues cropping up beginning with the Indiana game, he said he wasn’t patient enough in the pocket.
Mauk also tried to force throws into coverage, trying too hard to make big plays happen, and was plagued by occasional dropped passes.
With every pirouette from the pocket, it seemed as if Mauk’s improvisational skills were creating more problems than they were solving. He had to adjust.
“You’ve got to manage the game and then, when the time is right, you’ll know it,” Mauk said. “That’s when you take a shot.”
Mauk worked hard to read defenses better, studying extra film to be better prepared. He also committed to hanging in the pocket more, trusting a line that was in midseason flux after Anthony Gatti’s season-ending knee injury.
“You learn from what you’re doing,” associate head coach/quarterbacks coach Andy Hill said. “We had a couple weeks there where we didn’t move the ball offensively and the quarterback play could have been better, but he just worked on fundamentals and reads. His confidence level is coming back, so he’s just doing what he can do.”
Things started to come together against Vanderbilt. He only completed 11 of 23 passes, but he threw two touchdowns, which snapped a three-game span without a touchdown pass.
It was also around that time that Mauk picked up a shoulder injury, but he didn’t let that derail his journey on the comeback trail.
“It hurt,” Mauk said. “It affected me, but the main thing is the adrenaline comes and takes some of the pain away. I was able to get through it.”
During Missouri’s six-game win streak, Mauk has completed 100 of 186 passes for 1,193 yards with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions.
“They’re playing their best football of the year,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “There’s no question about it. I think it starts with the quarterback, but I think you have to give their entire offensive team a lot of credit for the consistency and performance that they’ve created the last three or four games.”
Mauk hopes to keep up his recent hot streak against the Crimson Tide at 3 p.m. Saturday in the SEC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome.
After that midseason lull, Missouri’s confidence in Mauk has been restored.
“I’m getting more and more comfortable, as you call the plays, where he’s going with the football,” Tigers offensive coordinator Josh Henson said. “The more you feel better about that, the more you want to give him opportunities to affect the outcome of the game.”
It’s a good thing, because Mauk has been particularly effective in the fourth quarter. He has completed seven of nine passes for 201 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions in wins against Tennessee and Arkansas the last two weeks.
“The main thing is what’s at stake for us,” Mauk said. “I hate losing, just like everybody else. That fourth quarter, when it comes down to it, I want the ball in my hands. I want to get the guys the ball and let them make plays.”
That’s the essence of Mauk’s job against a Crimson Tide defense that stifles the run. He has to make play, take pressure off the run game and allow the Tigers’ balance to shine through.
“Obviously, you’re always looking for consistency, but, in our business, there always comes a time when you’ve got to make a few plays if you want to win,” Pinkel said. “That’s kind of in his makeup, his DNA, a little bit. It certainly doesn’t surprise me. … He’s quarterbacking better than he’s ever quarterbacked, he’s managing the team better and he’s doing a lot of things to make plays.”