COLUMBIA — Brad Madison’s body swayed back and forth like a revving car waiting for a green light. Brayden Burnett pumped his heels off the turf in anticipation.
When the snap came, they struck. The opposing running back did not have a chance. He was on his back beneath both of them a moment later, as the final seconds of the first half ticked away. The result: loss of one yard on the play.
By that point in the eventual 69-0 victory over Western Illinois, Missouri led by 42. But the defensive ends still had a reputation to be restored. Every additional play was an opportunity to do so.
The ends entered the season as the focal point of a defense called possibly the best that head coach Gary Pinkel has had during his career at MU. Last year the ends accounted for 22 sacks and 38 tackles for loss. Aldon Smith left for the NFL, but they returned two fearsome ends in Jacquies Smith and Madison and depth in Michael Sam and Burnett.
Jacquies Smith dislocated his elbow against Miami (Ohio), though, and then Arizona State torched the defense for 492 yards and 37 points. With only 3.5 tackles for loss, the defensive ends' pressure was nearly nonexistent.
That changed against Western Illinois. Thanks to improved pressure from the defensive ends, Missouri held the Leathernecks to 44 total yards and one first down.
"It was a sense of pride," Burnett said. "(Last week), we didn’t play up the level we could have, and we kind of had a chip on our shoulder. We had something to prove, and we still have something to prove. We still have got to get better, but I think it definitely stepped up this week."
The defensive line forced Western Illinois to three-and-outs on its first four offensive possessions. On the first play of the game, running back Bryce Flowers was taken down at the Leathernecks’ own 11 yard line by Madison for a loss of one. Facing third-and-six on Western Illinois’ second possession, Burnett ripped right tackle Kyle Caldwell out of his way and beat a bunch of teammates who had broken through the offensive line to quarterback Josh Hudson (defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson shared credit for the sack).
In his pursuit of Hudson, Burnett looked slightly crazed on the play, but he said the defensive line concentrated on staying calm after the loss to Arizona State. In practice defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski made the focus technique.
"Last week we had that big game on ESPN and came out with our heads cut off a little bit," Burnett said. "(Tonight) we calmed down."
Missouri’s lead increased to 50, but the pressure remained relentless. Burnett picked up another sack in the third quarter. As he ran off the field, he exchanged an exuberant high-five with Sam, his replacement. After 35 plays, Western Illinois had 35 yards, and the Leathernecks had -4 yards in the second half.
"We came into the second half with the mindset that the game just started," Madison said. "I don’t think we’ll ever step it down no matter what the situation. Maybe the offense, but not us."
Right tackle Dan Hoch said the offensive line bore the brunt of the defensive ends' frustration this week in practice.
"Our d-ends definitely wanted to get a better pass rush, and you could really tell in practice this week," he said. "It was one of the things they really focused on."
They will need to come with the same intensity at Oklahoma, the top-ranked team in the nation, next weekend. Of course, getting by the offensive line won't be nearly as easy. But if the Tigers have any chance of upsetting the Sooners for a second consecutive year, they cannot allow quarterback Landry Jones much time.
That intensity must be controlled, though. No more running around with heads cut off.
"It's always tough to stay in that zone, but we're going to have to," Burnett said.