Tigers defense reviews rough spots

Tuesday, September 2, 2008 | 1:25 a.m. CDT; updated 2:48 p.m. CST, Thursday, January 15, 2009
Illinois quarterback Juice Williams throws a pass against MU on Saturday. Williams embarrassed the MU defense with two long second half scoring drives to cut MU’s lead.

COLUMBIA — Cornerback Carl Gettis had a front-and-center view of the horror show, and he would have rather smashed his knuckles against his eyelids. He couldn't believe what was happening. Missouri's victory over No. 20 Illinois was seemingly sealed, wrapped under the cocoon of a 31-13 halftime lead that ballooned to 45-20 late in the third quarter. The Illini's threat, it appeared, would wash into the nearby Mississippi River with the strength of a pond's ripple.

Then, a twist in the script.

Take One: Illinois quarterback Juice Williams slithered a 26-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Chris Duvalt like a snake through prairie grass and converted the two-point try. Missouri 45, Illinois 28.

Take Two: Wide receiver Will Judson ground MU's secondary as a meat mincer would pork for a 65-yard catch and score. Missouri 45, Illinois 35.

"We knew what he was going to do," Gettis said of Williams' stellar second half. "I think that's what made it even more disappointing. We knew he was going to go deep on us, and the time he went deep on us, we still got beat."

Missouri defenders did, and it's a nightmare most involved won't soon forget. When his dust devil dissipated, Williams had completed 26 of 42 passes for 451 yards and five touchdowns, both career highs, and provided fodder for MU defensive players and coaches Monday as they moved forward in the wake of yielding 532 yards, most of which came in the second half.

Entering Saturday, Williams' best passing performance had stood at 245 yards against USC in the 2008 Rose Bowl. On Nov. 10, 2007, he passed for four touchdowns in a victory against then-No. 1 Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio, one of the season's most notable upsets.

Judson's speed surprised defenders. Gettis said MU's defense didn't see much of the 5-foot-8 senior in film sessions. During last season's entirety, Judson finished with six catches for 30 yards, his longest for 9. On Saturday, he had five receptions for 177 yards and two touchdowns.

"The speed that he brought to the table, that's what really shocked me the most," Gettis said. "We didn't really see him in the film room, so when he got on the field and he was running by guys, it kind of threw us off-guard how fast he was."

Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus isn't concerned, because he said his unit, which returns 10 starters from 2007, will face adversity as players become acclimated. During the early part of last year, MU built sizeable advantages against Illinois and Mississippi, only to experience tense moments late in both victories. As the season progressed, the Tigers' defense improved, eventually ranking as the Big 12's best in total defense during conference play. The trend isn't the desired scenario, Eberflus said, but he has faith proper adjustments will be made.

"After every single game, there are always corrections," he said. "There are always things you need to work on. There are always things that we did well. Every single game, I go to the defense and show them 10 good plays and 10 bad plays. It doesn't matter if we win by 40, win by 10 or get beat by 3. I do that every single week.

"I wasn't really surprised by anything, to be honest with you. I knew we had the lead on them. I knew they were going to come out and throw the football, just like (opponents) do in many occasions throughout our games. We just have to do a better job executing."

They do, but coach Gary Pinkel said the early season ills facing MU's defense will be addressed.

"Bottom line, we have to play better," Pinkel said. "I think that's why our players were disappointed."

MACLIN BACK?: An additional MRI result revealed that consensus All-American wide receiver Jeremy Maclin strained a peroneal tendon in his left ankle, but the injury is not serious. Maclin, listed as probable for Saturday's game, had his ankle wrapped Monday afternoon but didn't show visible signs of pain. Maclin's prospects of playing Saturday against Southeast Missouri State will be determined by week's end.

"I want to play," Maclin said. "I'm competitive. I want to be out there with my teammates. Nobody wants to sit out."

FISHER GRADES WELL: Pinkel had positive things to say about redshirt freshman left tackle Elvis Fisher's debut. Fisher made his first start against Illinois on a night when quarterback Chase Daniel was sacked once for a loss of six yards.

"I don't know if you could ask much more from Elvis Fisher," Pinkel said. "Here's a redshirt freshman in a really high-octane environment. ... He had his wins and losses, but I think (his performance was) a huge statement as a young player."

RUNNING GAME PRAISE: MU's running game experienced greater success against Illinois on Saturday. Led by Derrick Washington's 130 yards on 19 carries, the Tigers gained 226 rushing yards. Last year in the season opener, the Tigers managed 80 yards on the ground.

"It's a combination of game planning and anticipating a little bit better of what they're going to do," Pinkel said. "A year ago, we played them, so we were able to anticipate what they were going to do. I thought we had a good plan. I thought we blocked well."

HARD TO GET UP FOR SEMO?: After playing four consecutive high-profile games, questions were raised about MU's approach to playing Division I-AA Southeast Missouri State. Pinkel said he views the home opener as an opportunity to gain experience before the conference schedule begins. In the only other meeting between the schools, MU won 20-0 in 1936. The Redhawks beat Division II Southwest Baptist 35-28 in overtime Saturday.

"I don't care who we play," Pinkel said.

"This week is about Missouri. SEMO is our next opponent. That's one of our goals, to beat SEMO. But this is still about our offense and defense playing at a high level."

INJURY UPDATE: Free safety William Moore (foot sprain) is listed as probable. Reserve linebacker Steve Redmond (torn ACL, MCL) will have knee surgery this afternoon and is out for the season. Linebacker Van Alexander will get more work this week and will possibly see playing time Saturday. Wide receiver Danario Alexander (knee surgery) will continue to receive work but is not expected to play.


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