Expectations for freshman QB Chase Patton were high entering the fall. Patton was one of the top quarterbacks in his recruiting class, and his choice to stay in Columbia to play for his hometown Tigers had to have pleased every Missouri fan.
A week into practice, Patton was floundering. He struggled to read the defense. He had trouble pitching the ball in an option run drill. He got his feet tangled up with his linemen a few times. It was nothing to write home about, even though it would barely require a stamp for him to do so.
Saturday afternoon's scrimmage changed all of that. Patton was the star of the afternoon, completing 19-of-24 passes for 190 yards and the day's only touchdown, a connection with sophomore WR Andrew Hoskins. It was a giant leap forward for Patton, who solidified his spot as the team's No. 3 quarterback, possibly even opening a few doors to be the back-up, after sophomore Brandon Coleman struggled Saturday.
After the scrimmage, Patton said he becomes more comfortable with the speed of the defenses he faces every day.
"I'm starting to get more comfortable with the offense," he said. "It's not second nature yet, obviously, but I'm able to make the reads a little quicker and that lets me read the defense a little quicker. The speed doesn't get to me as much, but obviously there were some times that it did."
Patton experienced a baptism by fire early, as he and the third-string offense faced the top defense, a unit that would dominate the second-team offense all afternoon. Patton drove the offense from its own 30 to its opponent's 20, a 45-yard jaunt, in 4 plays.
The big play of the drive was the first, a 37-yard completion to freshman WR William Franklin. The ball was slightly underthrown, but Franklin slowed down, avoided senior CB Shirdonya Mitchell, who fell as he tried to stop, and made the catch. A nice tackle by junior S Jason Simpson of freshman TE Martin Rucker on third down shut down the drive, but it was enough for coach Gary Pinkel to notice.
"I was very impressed," Pinkel said. "This is only the second scrimmage he had, (and) the first drive against the number one defense. There are some good folks on that number one defense. He didn't seem too concerned about it."
Patton connected with senior TE Victor Sesay three times on the day, picking up 17 yards. Late in the scrimmage, his main target became Andrew Hoskins, who made five catches on one drive. Four of them moved the chains, while the last scored the only touchdown of the day, a seven-yard score.
Patton and Hoskins have been paired together on the third team often throughout the fall season. They have developed a connection, and it showed Saturday.
"He's been a great player these past two weeks," Patton said of Hoskins. "He makes a bunch of good plays. It's not like I try to get it to him, but he seems like he gets open all the time. I guess it worked out today. He made some awesome plays."
Pinkel said he was most impressed with Patton's poise, a trait rarely exhibited by true freshmen, especially at quarterback.
"If you don't have that, you're not ready to play," Pinkel said. "He made some great throws and Hoskins made some great catches. Certainly, to anybody here, it was very obvious that he had a very good day."
Only the top defensive unit had a better one. It did not face the No. 1 offense, continually waylaying the second team instead. The unit gave up four first downs on the day, with three of them coming in the two-minute drill at the end of the scrimmage.
Apparently four first downs were three too many for Pinkel to be completely pleased with the unit's performance.
"It was good to see them get hit a little bit and come back and try to hold them," Pinkel said. "They did some good things, but if you're a great defense, you don't give up a first down in a scrimmage, or you might give up one the entire scrimmage. We gave up a few, so we're not great."
It might not have been great, but the defense was, at the least, good. It tortured Coleman all afternoon, allowing him to complete just 9-of-26 passes for 32 yards. Coleman had negative passing yards for much of the afternoon, finally breaking out of the red late. In 11 series against the unit, Coleman led the offense to just three first downs.
With two weeks left until the Tigers open the regular season, Pinkel said he can see progress in his team, but that it must continue over the coming fortnight.
"I see things that are improving," he said. "I feel that we're going in the right direction. We're not ready to play yet.
"Two weeks from right now, our team is boarding the bus at the hotel to come to play."