MU defense still tweaking

Sunday, September 14, 2008 | 8:58 p.m. CDT; updated 2:52 p.m. CST, Thursday, January 15, 2009
Running back Vai Taua is brought down by the Missouri defensive line in the second half of the Tigers' 69-17 victory.

COLUMBIA - They entered Memorial Stadium's interview room as the forgotten few. About an hour earlier, Missouri's offense had scrubbed the final gleam on a 69-17 victory over Nevada on Saturday with the mercy of a road grater. Removed from the offense's curtain call, safety William Moore and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon offered insight into the defense's growth.

"In the first half we were messing up on assignment football," Weatherspoon said. "They ran the option. They gouged us here and there. Their quarterback had a couple of good runs.

"We came out and had a huge second half. We ended on a positive note."

Said Moore of MU's offense: "It's a gift and a curse. It's great that they put up the points like that. We condition a lot as a defense. We know the offense is going to put the ball into the end zone every time. If they can score, score. They do it so quick."

And since it happened often Saturday, the performance of MU's defense was largely overlooked amid the offense's praise. Yet there were statistics to inspect: MU held Nevada to 182 rushing yards, 143 fewer than what the nation's fifth-best ground attack averaged before the weekend; after allowing a touchdown pass on the first half's final play, MU's secondary held Nevada quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and Nick Graziano to a combined 31 passing yards the rest of the way. Players and coaches said some areas must be addressed before MU begins Big 12 Conference play Oct. 4 at Nebraska, but they are optimistic improvements will be made.

MU's defense slowed Nevada's pistol formation, a hybrid between the traditional I-formation and shotgun sets. The Wolf Pack were without their leading rusher, Luke Lippincott, who suffered a left ACL tear in a Sept. 6 loss to Texas Tech. In his place, Vai Taua led the Nevada running backs with 47 yards on 15 carries. Brandon Fragger (29 yards), Lampford Mark (25 yards) and Courtney Randall (10 yards) also played in the backfield. Kaepernick paced the Wolf Pack's overall ground game with 71 yards, including one rushing touchdown.

Entering Saturday, MU's defense was allowing 350.5 passing yards per game, largely because of Illinois quarterback Juice Williams' 451-yard performance in the season opener. In the first half Saturday, MU's pass coverage again experienced problems. The most glaring example occurred during the final play of the first half. Wide receiver Marko Mitchell darted behind the MU secondary's broken cover-2 scheme, and Kaepernick hit him for a 42-yard touchdown. Kaepernick finished the half with 149 yards on 16-of-23 passing, and MU defenders said they heard from frustrated coaches at halftime.

"We had to have short-term memory on that play," Moore said. "Guys were down a little bit, but it's something you put behind you."

MU made adjustments, and Kaepernick and Graziano failed to muster much production in the second half. After halftime, MU allowed a combined 31 yards on 5-of-23 passing from Kaepernick and Graziano.

Players said Nevada's first drive of the second half was a turning point. The Wolf Pack began at their own 25 but stalled when two of Kaepernick's passes fell incomplete and Taua was tackled after a short gain.

"A lot of guys were repeating the call and taking care of assignments," Moore said. "It (coverage) wasn't broken (in the first half), but there were some things we should have talked (about)."

Said Weatherspoon: "We didn't back down. We knew we got scored on, and we knew those guys were going to come out with confidence. The first series was three-and-out, and that (drive) was so crucial for their offense, and it was great to give us a spark."

MU's defense may have recovered, but coach Gary Pinkel said work remains. On a day when the offense attracted headlines, the defense learned more about itself.

"We have a lot of different things we need to improve upon," Pinkel said. "We had trouble with the option a little bit. We had some missed tackles. (But) we shut them out in the second half, a team that averages (34) points a game. We did some good things, and we did some bad things."

MOVING UP: After No. 1 USC beat No. 5 Ohio State, 35-3, on Saturday night, MU moved up a position to No. 5 in both polls.


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