MU defense gets back to basics

Wednesday, October 22, 2008 | 8:35 p.m. CDT; updated 2:59 p.m. CST, Thursday, January 15, 2009
Missouri linebackers coach Dave Steckel attempts to energize the Tigers' defense in a sideline meeting during this season's loss to Oklahoma State.

COLUMBIA - Something wasn't right. Missouri's defense was overmatched.

Sometime during the first half of last Saturday's football game, there had to be a moment when cornerback Carl Gettis knew. Perhaps he knew when Texas quarterback Colt McCoy lunged beyond the goal line to cap a 94-yard drive with a game-opening 6-yard touchdown run. Perhaps he knew when Texas wide receiver Jordan Shipley skirted past three arm tackles before slipping into the end zone to give the Longhorns a 35-0 lead.

Whenever Gettis knew, the realization could not have been pretty. He and other Missouri defenders learned they had much to improve upon before they can compete against elite offenses.

"We know our fundamentals have been off," Gettis said. "We have been missing a lot of tackles, just making a lot of mental errors. It's definitely time for us to go back to the basic fundamentals of what got us here."

What allowed Missouri's defense to gain respectability a year ago?

After a slow start, the Tigers led the Big 12 Conference in total defense. Missouri held opponents to 10 points or fewer four times during the season's second half (against Nebraska, Colorado,  Texas Tech and Arkansas).

In the Tigers' Cotton Bowl rout, they contained Arkansas' feared tailback tandem of Darren McFadden and Felix Jones to a combined 150 yards rushing. The Tigers returned 10 starters, only losing defensive tackle Lorenzo Williams. Some expected the unit to build upon last year's success and complement Missouri's lethal offensive potential.

What has happened since?

Safety and defensive leader William Moore has fought injury. He suffered a right foot sprain in the season opener against Illinois. It became re-aggravated two weeks later against Nevada. An MRI revealed no damage beyond the sprain. But Moore has yet to snag his first interception (he was tied for the nation's most with eight last year) and is struggling to discover his former burst.

In recent weeks, Missouri's pass rush has failed to generate pressure. The Tigers managed to sack Oklahoma State quarterback Zac Robinson twice but allowed tailback Kendall Hunter to run for 154 yards. Against Texas, McCoy was sacked once and had ample time to find wide receivers open in the secondary. He completed 29-of-32 passes for 337 yards and had four all-purpose touchdowns.

"We have to start taking care of everything," defensive end Stryker Sulak said. "It all comes back to a lot of letdowns we had in the (Texas) game. We were all upset about it. It's in the past, and we knew we had to change a lot of things we did wrong."

Starting with pass defense. In the category, Missouri ranks No. 114, allowing an average of 287.71 yards per game. In the coming month, the Tigers should receive a reprieve. Of Missouri's remaining schedule, only Kansas (335.4) averages more than 300 passing yards per game. Many consider the Jayhawks to be the Tigers' lone threat in the Big 12 North. On Saturday night, Colorado will arrive in Columbia averaging 182.6 yards per game.

Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus remains confident in Missouri's ability to recover. He said adversity presents his players with an opportunity to mature.

"Whenever you face adversity, it can affect you in ... a positive way," he said. "It can help you focus on the task at hand, focus on what's right in front of you. That's what I think it's going to do for our team."


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