COLUMBIA — The Missouri football team has faced its fair share of challenges on defense this season.
Against Georgia, a poised Aaron Murray responded after starting slowly, throwing for three touchdowns in a blowout win.
Missouri (4-5, 1-5 SEC)
at Tennessee (4-5, 0-5 SEC)
WHEN: 11:21 a.m.
WHERE: Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, Tenn.
South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore bounced off Missouri’s arm tackles a few weeks later, while quarterback Connor Shaw completed 20 straight passes in another blowout win.
When it hosted No. 1 Alabama, the running tandem of Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon combined for 321 rushing yards and five touchdowns, leading the Crimson Tide to – you guessed it – another blowout win.
Throughout its first season in the Southeastern Conference, Missouri’s defense has seen a poised leader, an accurate passer and a two-headed monster.
The defense has certainly faced challenges – but nothing like this.
When Missouri takes the field Saturday at Neyland Stadium, its defense will have the task of slowing down a Tennessee attack that ranks near the top of the SEC in virtually every category.
The Volunteers are second in the conference in scoring per game, averaging 36.8 points so far this season.
Much of that scoring can be attributed to quarterback Tyler Bray, a 6-foot-6 junior who many say has the strongest arm in the SEC. He has thrown for 25 touchdowns, the most in the conference. He has also amassed 2,812 passing yards, also the most in the conference.
Junior receiver Justin Hunter has seven touchdown catches, the most in the conference.
Most in the conference. Most in the conference. Most in the conference.
That phrase, for Missouri coach Gary Pinkel and his defense, is hard to ignore.
“They like throwing the ball," Pinkel said during the weekly SEC teleconference on Wednesday. "They’re good at it. They run the ball, too, but certainly they’ve got a guy that throws the ball well and people who can catch it. That’s the way they lean, and it’s served them well. Their yards and points they put up has been staggering.”
While Hunter sits atop the SEC in touchdown catches, with three of them coming in last week’s 55-48 win against Troy, he may not be the most dangerous receiver the Vols have to offer.
That honor may go to junior Cordarrelle Patterson, who gained 219 yards in last week’s game – more than Missouri receivers Gahn McGaffie and Bud Sasser have for the entire season.
As Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said, all they worry about is delivering Patterson the football. Once he has it, the rest seems to take care of itself.
“Once he gets the ball in his hands, he’s just one of those special guys," Dooley said Wednesday. "The hardest part for us is making sure we get him the touches and get him in space. We’ve run him (from the backfield) some, and we get it to him in the return game and on reverses and that sort of thing, so any way we can try to get him to touch the ball, it’s going to help us.”
It’s going to help Tennessee while almost certainly hurting Missouri.
On Saturday, Hunter and Patterson will meet Missouri cornerbacks Kip Edwards and E.J. Gaines. They have provided Missouri with stability in the secondary, and both players have been dependable and consistent against top talent thus far.
But when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, something has to give.
“I think the whole thing is that you want to keep big plays to a minimum as best you can," Pinkel said. "That’s very difficult to do. Everybody wants to do it against them. Everybody tries to do it.
“They’re going to have their completions. (Bray’s) going to make his throws. But can you keep the damage down, in terms of yards after the catch and long balls down field?”
That, for a Missouri defense facing its greatest challenge yet, is the question.