Even with the game against Connecticut in the balance on Saturday, Missouri coach Gary Pinkel couldn’t help himself.
In apparent contrast to his long-held approach to quarterbacks, he seemed to fast-track the future over the present by summoning freshman Drew Lock to enter the game for junior Maty Mauk.
This was a monumental move in many ways, and it ultimately illuminated a few matters:
Despite Pinkel’s reluctance to fiddle with quarterback changes during the season, MU knows that Lock, from Lee’s Summit, is on a trajectory to be special and is seeking to accelerate his learning curve.
Just without saying it too bluntly.
“Our plan is not going to change,” Pinkel said Monday as MU prepared for its Southeastern Conference opener Saturday at Kentucky.
Then he acknowledged a certain caveat that accounted for how the plan is evolving, and why Lock was entrusted in the game with Missouri leading by three points in the fourth quarter.
“We have a plan in place,” Pinkel added, “but we have to have a gut feeling, and I trust that.”
And what happened next in the Tigers’ 9-6 victory is exactly why MU is wise to leave itself some wiggle room and allow this quarterback drama to play out in its own time until it reaches a critical mass.
It wasn’t simply that Lock misfired on three of four passes after maneuvering the Tigers to first and 10 at the Connecticut 37-yard-line, and that Mauk has had a knack for finishing games strong.
It was this scene, symbolic of how much Lock’s education at this level is just starting:
After Lock went deep on third and 6 instead of hitting an open target for a more modest gain and the first down, quarterbacks coach Andy Hill was on the sideline saying, “ ‘This is open, my friend, this is open.’ ”
Only Hill wasn’t speaking that out loud but through gestures and hand signals that weren’t all necessarily out of the textbook, so here’s what Hill saw coming back from Lock’s demeanor:
“ ‘What is he saying? He’s giving all these signals, and he’s also giving a bunch of hand gestures. Is that a new play or what?’ ”
Hill was exaggerating for effect, but the result was somewhat the same:
On fourth and 6, Lock again misfired deep and ignored the simple short option that would have given MU a first down.
After the game, Lock said he was guilty of trying to be a “hero.”
“Little, young 18-year-old decisions there, for sure,” Lock said Monday, later smiling and adding, “If I could get those four downs back, those would be the most wanted-back things that I could ever have in my life.”
Lock knew that as soon as he came off the field, instantly telling Hill exactly what he’d done wrong.
“It was really mature: He’s able to go point at himself and say, ‘Hey that was me,’ ” Hill said. “And most young guys … it’s always somebody else’s reasons.”
All at once, the episode speaks to Lock’s maturity and ability to learn, and the fact he still has much to absorb.
So the absurdly talented Lock, it turns out, somehow isn’t yet a finished product and actually can benefit from seasoning — no matter how inevitable it might appear that he will supplant Mauk by next season.
Meanwhile, booed as he was by MU fans on Saturday, Mauk as a starter is 17-4.
Even if the rise of that statistic for quarterbacks is a little misleading — what, quarterbacks suddenly are in a ring by themselves like boxers? — it also has a telling aspect to it.
“He’s probably one of the most resilient players I’ve ever coached,” offensive coordinator Josh Henson said, noting how Mauk didn’t flinch after rough outings last year. “I thought, honestly, that was great leadership for our team, because they didn’t see him waver.”
Henson added that as a quarterback, “Everybody’s watching you, everybody’s feeding off you to a certain extent. You don’t make or break the offense or the team, but everybody does follow your lead somewhat from an attitude standpoint.”
Just the same, Mauk still is making the sorts of mistakes he was making two years ago. To watch him play is to constantly feel the contradiction of admiring his grit and gritting your teeth at his judgment.
So this might all seem like a dilemma for MU.
Only it really isn’t quite.
At least not yet.
Now, you can understand the temptation to say that since the ceiling for Lock is higher than that for Mauk, that it’s time to go all-in on Lock, especially as the offense sputters.
But the flip side of that is that there are many reasons this offense has been bogged down. The absence of a running game, the scarcity of experienced receivers and the general struggles of the offensive line have as much or more to do with that as anything else.
Mauk also is a better runner than Lock right now, a threat MU needs as it sorts everything else out, and the experience factor is substantial even if Mauk sometimes seems to squander it.
Meanwhile, and this is important, the only quarterback controversy that exists now is among fans.
“That’s not how we think,” Lock said, and you know he means it.
For his part, Mauk says it’s his responsibility to do all he can to help prep Lock, and Lock knows he has plenty to learn from Mauk.
When Mauk was booed Saturday, Lock said it made him feel for Mauk and also left him wondering, “When he’s gone, and I fully take the reins, what’s going to happen to me if I have a bad game?”
The day when it’s all in his hands is coming, maybe sooner than later, if Mizzou struggles early in SEC play.
And you can make a fine case that the future is now and that Mauk has had ample time to be smoother than he is.
But Lock’s here to tell you: everything in its own time.
“I really do,” he said, “appreciate the learning curve.”
To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @vgregorian. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com