For at least one game, the roles were reversed.
When Missouri’s offense struggled, the defense kept the Tigers in the game. When the offense couldn’t close the door on Illinois, the defense did.
In fact, the defense, which was often the Tigers’ scapegoat last season, was most responsible for Missouri’s 22-15 win against Illinois on Saturday at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis.
Although coach Gary Pinkel said the defense has to improve, his review was overwhelmingly positive at Monday’s weekly press conference. A glowing review from Pinkel is difficult to earn, an encouraging vote of confidence for a defense that features seven starters who either didn’t play last year or are at new positions.
Pinkel said the defense’s two sacks fell short of its goal of four, but it matched a goal with nine tackles for loss. He said he expects the pass rush to improve, and that will have a trickle-down effect.
“Hopefully, we’ll get better, because when you pressure the football, it’s amazing how much better you play in the secondary,” Pinkel said.
The secondary, which is especially inexperienced, allowed Illinois quarterback Jon Beutjer to pass for 284 yards, but it was mostly on short routes that the Missouri defense was allowing in order to avoid giving up big plays. When the Illini got inside the 20, though, the Tigers’ were able to shut them down, allowing Illinois one touchdown and holding it to three field goals.
“We knew we were going to let them throw underneath,” Pinkel said. “That was part of the plan. They’ve gotta go to that end zone. That’s what we did. The yards really weren’t reflective on how the defense played in some respects. Although, we’ve certainly got to get out of drives, we’ve got to be better against the run, there’s a lot of things we’ve got to do.”
As encouraging as the defense was, though, the offense was equally discouraging. The Tigers had a difficult time establishing a passing game, and their longest play was a 19-yard screen pass from quarterback Brad Smith to tailback Zack Abron.
Although Pinkel said he was pleased that the offense put together a 78-yard drive immediately after Missouri had fallen behind 15-14, he was especially disappointed in the offense for not keeping the ball away from Illinois on the next drive.
“We kick off, and our defense stops ‘em,” Pinkel said. “We get the ball back. We call that victory offense. What you do in victory offense, with three or four minutes left, you do not give the ball back. You don’t do it.”
The Tigers did, though, putting the ball in Beutjer’s hands. Beutjer showed why he led the Big Ten Conference in passing yards per game last season, for he drove the Illini to the Missouri 23 before free safety Nino Williams II broke up passes for Melvin Bryant on third and fourth down to end the threat.
Pinkel said the offense should never have allowed the defense to be in that situation.
“Good football teams don’t let that happen,” Pinkel said. “Luckily, our defense went in there and made the plays.”
Williams was more forgiving.
“Our offense did a good job of getting some points back on the board,” he said. “We put the game on our shoulders. Luckily, we played good defense and kept our composure, and we came out with a victory.”
SHUFFLING THE DEPTH: Although he lost a yard on his only carry Saturday, sophomore tailback Damien Nash is listed as the No. 2 tailback on the latest depth chart, released Monday. Nash had been tied for No. 2 with junior Tyrone Roberson, who did not play Saturday. Pinkel said he expects to play both Nash and Roberson more as the season goes on.
“Damien has not played football for two-and-a-half years,” Pinkel said. “We got him in some plays, and he’s going to play more and more and more as time goes on. But I also think, in that type of environment, you lean on your more experienced players.”
Freshman wide receiver Brad Ekwerekwu was listed in the participation report after Saturday’s game, but Pinkel said that was a misprint.
Pinkel said he doesn’t know yet whether Ekwerekwu will play later in the season, though he is listed No. 2 at one wide receiver position.
“That depends upon what happens injury-wise, how he develops as a players, and so on,” Pinkel said.
Williams, who split time at free safety with redshirt freshman David Overstreet, stayed at No. 1 despite a minor sprain in his left wrist. Williams has a cast on the wrist, but he said it will not keep him from practicing or playing Saturday against Ball State.