COLUMBIA — The Missouri football team's defense is obsessed with forcing turnovers. For the Tigers, the formula for victory is simple. The opposing team can't score if the defense takes away the ball.
In a wide-open college football world, where defenses are constantly looking for ways to stop the latest offensive advancement, there is one defensive stat that rings true regardless if a team plays a 3-4, a 4-3, a nickel or something so new it doesn't have a name. That stat is takeaways.
A third of the way though the college football season, takeaways are the bellwether stat of success. Look at the nation's top takeaway teams — Oregon, Ohio State, Florida, Nebraska. Successful teams force turnovers.
Missouri football coach Gary Pinkel wants to put his team with that elite company.
“There’s nothing that can influence a game more,” Pinkel said of takeaways.
Missouri isn't far behind the elite. The Tigers rank 16th in the nation with 12 takeaways in four games. The goal for the Missouri defense this season was to force opponents into 35 turnovers. Early on, the Tigers are ahead of schedule in getting the ball.
It's a huge change from Missouri's 2009 season, when the Tigers had only 23 takeaways in 13 games.
“We’d fallen off, just as far as turnover margin," Pinkel said in the Big 12 teleconference Monday. "Our goal is always to be in the top 10 in the nation. That aims high, but we know the influence those have on winning and losing.”
Much of Missouri's increase in takeaways can be credited to the defensive secondary. In 2009, the Missouri defense had only eight interceptions for the entire season. Through four games, the 2010 Tigers have already equaled that number. That's not counting the handful of interceptions the Tigers have dropped.
The Tigers secondary has turned into ball hawks overnight, with all the same players from last season.
"I think our secondary play is getting better. Every game is a new adventure," Missouri cornerbacks coach Cornell Ford said. "We want to try to be ball hawks as much as possible. Big plays, big hits, takeaways, that's the name of the game for a defensive back."
The Tigers pass defense was passive in 2009. In 2010, Ford and defensive coordinator Dave Steckel decided to give an experienced secondary freedom to play aggressively.
"A little more freedom at times is good for certain players. With experience gives you flexibility to do things," Ford said.
That new bumping-and-running style has resulted in the interceptions, but also standout starts for senior cornerbacks Carl Gettis and Kevin Rutland.
Gettis has one interception this season, but his one-handed, full-extension pick against Illinois was stylish enough to count as two.
Rutland has two interceptions. His last was a perfect case study for Pinkel to use when defending his "nothing influences a game more" theory.
After a De'Vion Moore fumble early in the fourth quarter against San Diego State, the Aztecs started their drive 7 yards from the end zone, trailing by six points. Two plays later, Rutland intercepted a pass in the end zone, preserving the lead and swinging momentum back in Missouri's favor.
"We have a more aggressive style of play, and every secondary player loves it," Rutland said. "Not to mention we have one of the best defensive lines I have ever seen. When they have pressure on the quarterback, and are in his face, they're going to throw balls that aren't the best balls, and we're going to be right there to get them."
Ford agrees that the defensive line is as instrumental in forcing interceptions as Gettis or Rutland.
"Our guys up front put a lot of pressure on guys," Ford said. "Our pressure, our front has been really great. I love our defensive line."
The linebackers aren't shabby either. Hard-hitting Will Ebner has played in two games this season and he's already knocked the ball away from the carrier three times. Against Miami-Ohio Ebner's hit forced a fumble on the first play from scrimmage. Gettis recovered the ball and ran 19 yards for a touchdown eight seconds into the game. The tone of the game was set — Missouri rolled to three more touchdowns before Miami was able to muster a field goal in the second quarter.
Pinkel said Monday that he doesn't expect the defense to cool down after a hot start, and that once a defense starts forcing turnovers in big numbers, it becomes a trend.
“It does get contagious a little bit," Pinkel said. "I think there’s a point where, if you’re fortunate to start getting the ball out, whether it’s interceptions or fumbles, then sometimes I think there’s an expectation level that it’s going to happen.”
And with Big 12 Conference play starting for the Tigers in one week, the trend has to continue. The competition for the Tigers will become more difficult, but the formula for winning is still easy to remember. Takeaways win games.