COLUMBIA — Trailing by three points with about six minutes left in the third quarter, the Missouri defense had two players lined up out of position.
Starting defensive ends Aldon Smith and Jacquies Smith were lined up as defensive tackles on the inside of the line, while their backups rushed from the outside.
It was third-and-12 for Illinois. Speedy quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase faced instant pressure and tried to escape up the middle. Just as he tucked the football and began to dart up the field, sophomore defensive end Brad Madison slammed him backward into the ground for a loss of 4 yards.
Having four defensive ends on the field at one time wasn’t a result of a miscommunication, injury or lack of conditioning. The new front was something Missouri decided to debut against Illinois to help contain its dual-threat quarterback and add more pressure during passing situations.
Missouri scored a touchdown on the drive following Madison’s crushing tackle for a loss and took its first lead of the day, which turned out to be enough for the victory.
“It was an experiment,” Aldon Smith said. “The coaches knew that all of us had the ability to get to the quarterback, so they wanted to try it out.”
The quickness-focused scheme led to two other key defensive plays during the game including one of Smith’s two sacks.
“It brings a better pass rush, a better chance at getting to the quarterback,” Aldon Smith said. “We’re a little faster than the defensive tackles, so it just helps us get to the quarterback a little bit faster.”
Learning the subtleties of a new position didn’t pose too much of a challenge for Aldon Smith, who spent some time playing defensive tackle last season.
“I don’t really see differences because they’re all offensive lineman,” he said. “I think you got to take it in mind that you’ve got a better chance at getting double teamed. They’re a little bit stronger inside.”
While Smith might feel slightly undersized, his speed and quickness lead to a mismatch on the inside.
“We played him at defensive end, we played him at defensive tackle, and we dropped him out into coverage a couple times,” MU coach Gary Pinkel said. “We spied him out on the quarterback a few times in the second half. I utilize his athleticism.”
It remains unclear how much the Tigers will use the new front throughout the season, but redshirt freshman defensive end Michael Sam is confident in the scheme.
“Somebody’s going to get free,” Sam said. “If that thing does not work, than you should not even do it anymore.”