As Aldon Smith walked off the field following his second sack in as many plays, he looked toward the sky and let out a roar.
It was an expression of emotion from another drive-ending play for the Missouri defense.
But it was also a sigh of relief.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel has said it all season. His team’s defense was close. If it kept doing the right things, the turnovers and sacks would come. In Saturday’s 36-17 win against Colorado, they came in bunches.
After accumulating 13 sacks over the first seven games, the Tigers had eight against Colorado, including three from Smith, a defensive end. Following the game, the redshirt freshman echoed his head coach’s statements. The defense was due for a game like this.
“We believe in ourselves, and we believed in our coaches and our assignments,” Smith said. “If we did our assignments right we would get to the quarterback.”
While the Missouri defensive line accounted for half the team’s sack total there were also a few unlikely contributors. Cornerbacks Kevin Rutland and Robert Steeples each added their first sacks of the season as part of a more diverse blitzing scheme the defensive coaching staff implemented as a way to bother sophomore quarterback Tyler Hansen.
“Generally the younger the quarterback, the more trouble he has (dealing with blitzes),” Pinkel said.
“(Defensive coordinator Dave Steckel) and his staff did an excellent job of game-planning that.”
Sophomore linebacker Will Ebner also notched a sack early in the first quarter. The big hit jarred the ball loose from Hansen and led to the game’s first turnover as Missouri recovered the fumble at the Colorado 6-yard line.
Generating turnovers has been one of the main problems for the Missouri defense all season. But Missouri took the ball away from Colorado four times Saturday, twice as many times as any game this season.
“It’s all about momentum,” Brian Coulter said of generating turnovers. “If you can go out there and get turnovers and take that momentum from them and give it back to your offense, that’s big.”
Despite several tackles for loss and quarterback hurries, Coulter had gone without a sack until Saturday. When he managed to drag down Hansen in the first half, the senior defensive end said he felt a similar release to Smith.
“It feels like a big weight lifted off your chest,” Coulter said.
Coulter said that, while some of the success getting to Hansen came as a result of coaching and defensive scheming, a new defensive mindset is what made Saturday’s performance possible.
“We usually don’t meet together as a unit on Thursdays,” Coulter said. “We usually meet as individual (position) groups. But coach (Steckel) made us meet together to remind us about Sunday and how it felt to go three weeks without a win.”
According to Coulter, the defense made a verbal commitment to put forth a unforeseen level of effort in practice, and the results showed. The question now is whether the Tigers can sustain this defensive success, something that Coulter doesn’t see as a problem.
“It makes you more hungry,” Coulter said. “Yeah, I got that first sack. But now I want another one even more.”