Despite criticism Tigers' secondary insists it's improving

Wednesday, October 8, 2008 | 7:55 p.m. CDT; updated 1:41 p.m. CDT, Thursday, October 9, 2008
After a 5-0 start, MU starting cornerback Castine Bridges said the team has been doing well, but he thinks the secondary still needs improvement. "(We need) to stay on top of our deep balls and make the quarterback force throws," Bridges said. "Every game since the first game, we've been getting better and better."

COLUMBIA — Missouri cornerback Castine Bridges has heard all the criticism.

It began after the opening game of the season when the Tigers surrendered 42 points to Illinois. Illini quarterback Juice Williams threw for 451 yards against the Missouri pass defense, including four touchdowns of more than 20 yards, and the criticism of the pass defense began to come from everywhere.

That game was played in the first week of the season. The Tigers have played four games since then, but Bridges thinks the pass defense is still paying for the mistakes it made against the Illini.

"That was a bad game for the secondary," Bridges said. "But the games after that, they haven't been totally bad to the point where you can say any team can throw on Missouri. (But) when you watch (ESPN's) "GameDay" and they talk about our defense, the only game they show is the Illinois game."

The criticism appears warranted because the Tigers rank last in the Big 12 in pass defense, but without that game against Illinois, the Tigers would jump ahead of Texas and Nebraska, two defenses that haven't been criticized nearly as much.

"That game, what it did was make other offenses think they could throw the ball on us," Bridges said. "In the Buffalo game, the first pass they threw was a fade to my guy. If people believe they can throw the ball on us, we tell them to throw it."

Although the pass defense would appear to be an afterthought against a team that likes to run the ball as much as Oklahoma State, the Cowboys have the third most efficient quarterback in the nation in Zac Robinson.

"I'm very concerned, they'll play-action and get the ball downfield," coach Gary Pinkel said. "That's what they do, they set you up. They'll run, run, run and you load up. Then all of a sudden, they pull the ball up and he goes down and he's efficient."

The biggest problem for the Tigers' defensive backs might be how long they have to defend the Cowboy receivers. Against Nebraska, most of the Cornhuskers' long completions came after the Missouri pass rush forced Joe Ganz outside the pocket. When he was able to escape, he was usually able to find a vacant spot in the secondary.

"Our pass rush, they get there so fast that it forces the quarterback to scramble," Bridges said. "Once they scramble, it's a little tough on the secondary because our men are going different ways. But that's because our pass rush is so good."

But the defensive line recognizes that hurrying the quarterback means nothing if he still manages to get outside their reach and complete the pass.

Against Robinson, a quarterback known almost as much for his legs as his arms, the need to keep him from escaping is magnified.

"It's very important (to contain Robinson)," defensive tackle Jaron Baston said. "We saw when we played Nebraska, we let him roll out and make some third down completions that we shouldn't have let him get. Some of them were just due to not keeping him in the pocket like we were supposed to."

Baston said that was the only mistake the Missouri defense made against Nebraska, and it's one he would like to fix.

"If we can do a good job of keeping him between the hashes, I think we'll have done a good job," Baston said. "I think if you look back at the film, a lot of the big plays that they got were on rollout passes. It was him creating plays for his team."

That wasn't good enough for Bridges. Although he uses the negativity around the pass defense as motivation, he said he would love to be able to shut down a respected opponent and prove how far the defense has come.

"(We need) to stay on top of our deep balls and make the quarterback force throws," Bridges said. "Every game since the first game, we've been getting better and better."


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