When he’s on, he can be a weapon with his arm and his legs. When he’s off his game, however, he can be a liability. Despite Missouri’s 8-2 record heading into Saturday night’s showdown with Tennessee, he is having one of the all-time rollercoaster seasons. Most games he’s either stud or dud, awesome or awful, with very few performances falling in between.
For instance, Mauk opened 2014 with brilliant performances in Missouri’s first three games. He posted 178 passing yards, three touchdowns and a 180.25 passer-efficiency rating in Game 1 versus South Dakota State. He put up 325 passing yards, five touchdowns and an amazing 190.00 efficiency rating in Game 2 versus Toledo, then threw for 144 yards, four touchdowns and a 155.40 efficiency rating in Game 3 versus Central Florida.
When Mauk is bad, however, he tends to be awful. He completed just 12 of 34 passes for 132 yards and a 67.91 efficiency rating at South Carolina. He was 9 of 21 for 97 yards with four interceptions and a 43.56 efficiency rating in a 34-0 home loss to Georgia. He followed with a 6-of-18 effort for 20 yards, an interception and a putrid 31.56 efficiency rating at Florida.
Bottom line: Tennessee’s home finale may well hinge on which Mauk shows up at Neyland Stadium … Good Maty or Bad Maty. Last fall in Columbia the Vols had to contend with Good Maty. In addition to passing for 163 yards and three touchdowns, he found time to lead all rushers with 114 yards in guiding a 31-3 Tiger romp.
“He made explosive plays,” Tennessee linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen recalled. “He threw the deep ball well. He did a lot of things that hurt us. When something wasn’t there he was able to keep drives alive with his feet. We’ve got to make sure we corral him and don’t let him out on the perimeter like we did last year. He’s probably the most athletic quarterback we face.”
Mauk’s mobility makes him unpredictable each time he’s being flushed from the pocket. When defenders think he’s going to throw he runs. When they think he’s going to run he throws.
“He’s a winner, he’s a gunslinger, he’s a gamer,” Vol defensive line coach Steve Stripling told InsideTennessee. “He will extend the play till the last second. I’ve seen him throw the ball leaping out of bounds many times, so we’ve got to make sure we have that relentless attitude this week. Obviously, we have to be very conscious of our (approach) points on the quarterback. Then, when he does break and try to scramble, we’ve got to give relentless pursuit.”
Mauk exhibits a rare ability and willingness to ad-lib, routinely turning plays that appear doomed into big gainers.
“He’s an improviser,” Vol defensive coordinator John Jancek said. “He’s kind of a Brett Favre/Johnny Manziel – that type of mold. He makes things happen with his feet, then he’ll scramble around and throw a deep ball downfield to a receiver who’s really not involved in the route. Those are the kinds of things he’s able to do.”
As a pocket passer Mauk is no Peyton Manning. He ranks 11th among SEC quarterbacks in completion percentage (53.8), 11th in passer efficiency (118.6 rating) and shares the league lead in interceptions thrown (10). He can be alarmingly effective, however, when he shifts into scramble mode.
“He hurt us last year, scrambling around and being very creative when things weren’t there,” Vol secondary coach Willie Martinez recalled. “We’ve got to be very conscious of him possibly coming out of the pocket. We talk about plastering receivers, basically locking ‘em up, because he will throw it and he will run, too. He’s made some really big-time plays throwing the ball downfield when he’s broken the pocket.”
There are two ways to defend Mauk: One, play zone coverage, keep one eye on him and risk getting beat for a long pass. Two, play man coverage, keep your eyes on the receiver and risk having Mauk sneak out of the backfield on a long run. When he’s on his game neither strategy works particularly well.
“If you play match coverage and turn your back on him, he runs it,” Thigpen noted. “Then you sit there and watch him (in zone coverage), and he throws it over your head. That’s where football is in college: If you get a mobile quarterback and you play vision coverage, they throw for 400. If you match ‘em, they run for 200.
“That’s what happened last year: Maty hurt us both ways. When we tried to man guys up (with his receivers), he ran the ball for a huge amount of yards. When guys start getting fatigued from chasing him sideline to sideline, then he’d run around and throw it over your head. He gave us a lot of problems last year.
“He probably was the most dynamic quarterback we faced.”