MUNCIE, Ind. — The Missouri defense heard the whispers about its inability to stop the run after Illinois tailback Ibrahim Halsey torched the Tigers for 139 yards in the season opener.
Missouri made it a priority to turn the whispers into silence against Ball State on Saturday.
When the clock expired, the Tigers defense had done what it wanted. While Missouri’s offense ran wild, gaining 290 yards on the ground, the defense held the Cardinals to 41 yards on 28 carries on its way to a 35-7 win.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said taking away the running game is one of the most important facets of a winning football team.
“When we look at our defensive stats, we look at our scoring defense No. 1, the rushing defense No. 2, the pass efficiency defense No. 3, and our total yardage No. 4,” Pinkel said. “The rushing defense that’s huge to try to make a team one-dimensional. You want to make sure they pass first, so I think we made progress there.”
James Kinney led the Tigers with 16 tackles against Illinois, but against Ball State the proof of the defensive improvement was in the statistics. No Tigers made more than Nino Williams’ nine tackles and 14 players made at least three.
The run defense asserted itself early, allowing 15 yards on seven carries in the first quarter and forcing Ball State to look to its passing game.
The Cardinals’ halftime rushing statistics were perhaps the best evidence of the Tigers’ newfound stinginess. Ball State gained 10 yards on 13 carries, and tailback Scott Blair gained 14 yards on nine carries. Blair’s 15-yard run in the first quarter was one of the few times he found himself moving forward.
Defensive tackle Atiyyah Ellison said he had a good idea that the Cardinals were going to need to resort to the pass almost exclusively.
“I knew that they weren’t really getting any yardage on the ground,” Ellison said. “I just kept thinking they are going to start passing and they did. I didn’t know the exact breakdown of it, but I thought we were doing pretty well.”
Ellison said the Tigers didn’t make a lot of adjustments in the past week, but they tried some new things that seemed to work. Missouri mixed up the defensive looks it gave Ball State, stunting on the line a lot, and occasionally dropping end Brian Smith back a few yards from the line of scrimmage to use his speed.
Defensive tackle Russ Bell said the Tigers were their biggest critics after the Illinois game and a tough week of practice put the defensive line in its place.
“We had lots of rough practices this week,” Bell said. “We can’t overlook anyone. We aren’t good enough and don’t have enough respect to overlook anyone. The coaches had to make sure that if we weren’t ready before then those practices got us ready and I guess it paid off.”