COLUMBIA — The field was shrinking on the Missouri defense.
The goalposts were getting closer and closer as the Miami (Ohio) offense was marching down the field. With the field down to a couple dozen yards in length, the Missouri defense stopped the RedHawks time and time again.
Four times during Saturday’s 17-6 Missouri victory, Miami drove down field 42 yards or more. Each time, it gave Missouri the ball back without scoring.
“You’ve got to step it up when they get in the red zone,” Missouri defensive lineman Brad Madison said. “That’s huge if you can get stops in the red zone. That’s big. You know you’re tired from driving the whole field. You’ve got to kind of dig down deep and find that energy, come out and step it up and stop them.”
On its first drive of the game, the Miami offense drove down field in 12 plays and chewed up five minutes and 12 seconds of clock before missing a field goal wide to the left.
Twice more during the first half, the RedHawks made easy work of driving on the Tigers' defense, but when they ventured deep into Tigers' territory, they were stopped.
“Naturally, when a team’s driving and the field gets shorter, you’ve got to tighten up your defense," cornerback Trey Hobson said. "Like (defensive coordinator Dave Steckel) says, ‘No matter where the ball is, we don’t care if it’s on the one-inch line, you’ve got to tighten up. Don’t give up anything.’
"As they get closer, the defense starts getting more pressure put on it, but at the same time, we put more pressure and start pressing. We put more pressure on quarterbacks and receivers to make plays. That’s what happens once they get closer down there.”
Miami’s most promising drive ended with an E.J. Gaines interception in the red zone. The RedHawks had made it to the Tigers’ 13-yard line before turning the ball over.
“We came out there and we know we have to get a turnover or not let them in the end zone or score at that matter,” Gaines said. “We just knew that we had to make a big play, and we’ve got a lot of playmakers out there and that’s what we did.”
In his first career start, Gaines was part of a secondary that was effectively eaten up by Zac Dysert, the Miami quarterback, in the first half. He threw for 124 yards in the first half and completed 14 passes, most of them to receivers toward the sidelines.
Miami’s lone red zone conversion came in the third quarter. Missouri quarterback James Franklin threw an interception while standing in his own red zone to Miami defensive back Dayonne Nunley. Dysert started his team’s drive at the 14-yard line, and after three plays and just more than a minute, Miami running back Erik Finklea dashed in from 10 yards out for a touchdown. The score brought the RedHawks within four points of Missouri and nearly silenced the 58,313 in attendance. Miami kicker Mason Krysinski missed the extra point attempt.
The first half was full of yardage for the Miami offense, but no points.
“We came out and we just needed to get adjusted, get a feel for what they were doing,” safety Kenji Jackson said. “And they actually came out in what we expected them to do, so once we had a feel for the game, we stood up and we were stout when we needed to be, on the goal line, deep in the red zone.”
Part of Miami’s offensive success in the first half was Dysert’s ability to avoid pass rushers. He eluded all Missouri defenders coming at him until Brad Madison sacked him late in the third quarter.
Defensive lineman Dominique Hamilton said that Dysert’s elusiveness was getting on his nerves, and Jackson said the defensive line was upset.
“We just had to keep rushing, keep rushing,” Hamilton said. “I was even getting frustrated. I was getting real mad because all they were doing was just throwing bubbles. That’s a good thing because I feel like if they’re scared enough to keep throwing bubbles to the sideline, let them keep doing it. But, of course we get frustrated because we want them to run the ball more. We want them to hold the ball more so somebody can go back there and make the play.”
Coach Gary Pinkel and some of his players mentioned that the defense made a lot of mistakes, despite allowing just six points. There were multiple 15-yard penalties for members of the secondary, including a high-hit penalty on defensive back Randy Ponder and a pair of pass interference penalties called on Gaines. Hobson said it’s part of the game to be penalized, and it’s better than letting the other team score.
“As long as we’re aggressive,” Hobson said, referring to Gaines’ penalties, “it’s better than getting beat. We’re going to keep covering that way, keep being aggressive and physical and everything else will come. We’re going to keep covering that way. That’s the way you’ve got to be if you want to be a very good corner.”
The defense was also hurt by the loss of defensive end Jacquies Smith, who exited the game in the third quarter with a dislocated elbow, and linebacker Will Ebner, who left during the first half with a high ankle sprain.
Despite several mistakes that players and coach said still need correcting, Madison said the coaching staff should be happy with the unit’s performance.
Missouri let the field shrink for much of the first half, but the most important thing for the Missouri defense was the shrunken point total: six points Saturday compared to 13 against the same opponent a year ago.