COLUMBIA — They were ready. Twice.
Junior linebacker Sean Weatherspoon made sure of it, delivering a pair of animated speeches on the sideline, invading his teammates’ personal space to make sure they couldn’t forget that keeping the Jayhawks out of the end zone would secure Missouri a precious victory over their rivals Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium.
And yet, the Missouri defense was left staring at the back of Kansas receiver Kerry Meier’s No. 10 jersey as he celebrated game-changing touchdowns that snatched the lead from the Tigers.
First, an eight-yard score to put the Jayhawks up 33-30 with 4:26 to play.
The final blow took the form of a 26-yard touchdown reception on a broken play on fourth-and-7 with just 27 seconds left to put Kansas up for good after the offense had done its best to make spending four hours in the wind and snow worth Missouri fans’ time.
“To go out and have that happen on the last play of the game, it’s heartbreaking,” senior linebacker Brock Christopher said. “It’s just frustrating.”
A defense that enters Saturday’s Big 12 Conference championship ranked 116th nationally and last in the Big 12 in pass defense picked a poor time to have arguably its worst performance since allowing Illinois quarterback Juice Williams to throw for 451 yards, nearly double his previous career-high, in the Tigers’ season opener.
But this time, there was no heroic Weatherspoon interception to seal the win.
Just sighs of frustration instead of relief and bewildered faces wandering back into the Tigers locker room, wondering how they had lost to a team that entered with four losses in its past five games.
The 2007 Missouri defense finished third in the Big 12 in pass defense and perched atop the conference in total defense, but these Tigers, who returned 10 starters, haven’t seen the same success.
A unit that wanted equal billing to their offensive counterparts in the preseason has played significant role in unraveling the Tigers’ national championship hopes that quickly disintegrated in mid-October.
And it saved its worst for when it needed its best.
Kansas quarterback Todd Reesing evaded an all-out blitz from the Tigers and the secondary lost Meier, who hauled in the touchdown pass as senior safety Justin Garrett’s late pursuit proved futile.
“For something so small, like a communication problem, for it to cost us the game was real tough,” freshman safety Kenji Jackson said. “A couple times, we’d be communicating, and then I’d look at Garrett, and he wouldn’t even be looking at me. It seemed like every time we didn’t get a call, they broke a big play.”
On one of those plays, Kansas receiver Dexton Fields split Jackson and All-Big 12 senior safety William Moore for a 25-yard touchdown in the middle of the secondary. Before Fields had even crossed the goal line, Moore was wildly gesturing towards Jackson, frustrated with the freshman’s mistake.
“It was just emotions flaring, that’s part of the game,” Jackson said. “He was just telling me to think, and stay focused … That don’t reflect Willy Mo at all.”
But the Tigers’ focus is now tunneled toward the Sooners. Diverting from routine, Missouri’s secondary didn’t watch a second of film on Sunday from Saturday’s loss to Kansas, speeding up the weekly “flush” of the previous game’s results.
In a team meeting Sunday night, Jaron Baston, perhaps the only Tigers player who could challenge Weatherspoon as the most outspoken, stood up and addressed the team.
His message was simple: We are Mizzou.
But Baston injected new meaning into what was otherwise a tired slogan plastered about the Missouri athletic facilities.
“Just the way he said it, everyone knew what he meant,” said senior Castine Bridges, whose career is likely over after tearing the meniscus in his right knee during Saturday’s game and undergoing surgery on Tuesday. “We are Mizzou, we are good. Don’t get it twisted. We’re better than what everyone thinks we are.”
“Nobody believes we can win this game,” Baston said, according to Bridges. “But that’s all it’s going to take, because we’re the only ones who are going to be out there.”
Baston’s speech hit home.
“It got pretty emotional in there, a lot of tears dropped,” said senior cornerback Tru Vaughns, who will replace Bridges in the secondary. “A lot of guys in there were ready to go at that moment. He was just talking about how we gotta have that pride. We’re pretty much just playing for pride at this point.”
But the fact remains, an obvious truth proven in last Saturday’s loss to Kansas: Defense cannot thrive on emotion alone.
“Communication across the board, you’ve got to make sure you’re communicating and functioning as one unit on every single down,” defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus said. “You’ve gotta make sure you’ve got functional intelligence, get the call, communicate it to the next guy, and make sure we’re all on the same page.”
Doing so could be difficult against the Sooners. Oklahoma’s high-powered offense runs without a huddle, the same way Kansas operated on its final two drives.
“Communication happens at a faster rate, so we’ve got to function at a faster pace and we’ve got to do a good job as coaches of setting that up in practice so guys can execute it in games,” Eberflus said.
The Sooners enter Saturday’s matchup with the nation’s top scoring offense with more than 53 points per game, a full four points above second-place Tulsa. Still, Missouri’s secondary isn’t intimidated by the prospect of lining up opposite Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford, who’s thrown a nation-best 46 touchdown passes.
“Some people will see a name and they automatically assume, well, all these guys are good,” Bridges said. “Once you’re on the field and you play against these guys, you’ll be like, ‘You know, they really wasn’t all that I was expecting them to be.’ After the Texas game, I think we’re really prepared for what’s going to happen this weekend.”