At practice a week ago, Missouri players each received a 3- by 5-inch note card listing two things they needed to improve upon from the Sept. 6 Ball State game.
Junior defensive tackle Atiyyah Ellison’s card read, No. 1: Improve pass rush; No. 2: Force a turnover.
On the defense’s first series of the Tigers’ 37-0 win against Eastern Illinois on Saturday, Ellison started work on achieving his first item when he knocked down quarterback Andy Vincent’s second-down pass attempt at the MU 24.
The rest of the defense covered for Ellison on the second. MU forced three fumbles and made one interception, earning its first shutout since a 38-0 victory against Bowling Green on Sept. 5, 1998.
The Tigers also sacked Vincent four times.
“I thought our quarterback was going to have trouble with their blitzes and he did,” Eastern Illinois coach Bob Spoo said.
The Tigers’ defensive line bothered Vincent, 5 feet 11, all game. Ellison knocked down another pass later in the first quarter, and nose guard C.J. Mosley batted one in the same series. Mosley and defensive end Brian Smith each had a sack and Ellison had the first sack of his career, a 7-yard loss.
“We’re rising up to the challenge and showing people that we really can get it done,” Smith said.
Senior linebacker Brandon Barnes, who made five tackles, said the defense continued to prove it has changed from last season.
“The defense had a lot of fun; it’s always fun getting a shutout,” Barnes said. “I’ve been on the other end and I know it feels terrible.”
MU coach Gary Pinkel said the defense played well overall and an equivalent to the shutout on offense would be if quarterback Brad Smith rushed for 200 yards.
“That’s a prized possession for the defense to do that,” Pinkel said. “It’s very difficult; you can average 13.5 points a game and your defense would be top 10 in the nation.”
Although the first-team defense played most of the game, at the beginning of the fourth quarter Pinkel put in the second string. When the Panthers moved 47 yards to MU’s 32, though, the first team went back in. Cornerback Michael Harden intercepted Vincent’s pass at the Tigers’ 5 to ensure the shutout.
The importance of getting the shutout was Pinkel’s justification to re-enter the first team.
“We decided last week we’d put our backups in and if it got too tight near the end zone we’d bring the starters back in to try and preserve it,” Pinkel said.
In three games, the Tigers have given up 22 points, the smallest amount since 1973. They also ended their shutout drought.
“You talk about it, you talk about it, but once you get it, you feel good about your team,” Ellison said.