Entering the season, the Missouri defense was supposed to be the weak link. The Tigers returned only four starters at a position where they played in 2002.
Some would consider that kind of attrition on defense a big loss and expect a rebuilding year with new players taking over at many positions in MU’s 4-2-5 alignment.
Instead, the loss of so many defensive regulars has turned out to be the Tigers’ gain. MU, which plays Saturday at Colorado after a week off, started the season on a mission to improve on last season’s dismal defensive performance.
Defensive tackle C.J. Mosley, cornerback Michael Harden, linebacker James Kinney and outside safety Jason Simpson were the returning starters in familiar positions. Defensive tackle Atiyyah Ellison moved to defensive tackle after a year at end.
Missouri finished 2002 at No. 81 in scoring defense, allowing 29.3 points, and No. 113 in pass defense, giving up 282.6 yards.
With the numbers stacked against it and new faces all over, nobody expected the defense to improve so quickly. The improvement might not be that impressive on paper, but the numbers are somewhat inflated by the 531 yards Texas Tech put up, a number that was almost 100 yards below the Red Raiders’ season average.
The solid defensive performance against Texas Tech showed Missouri had something it hasn’t had on defense in coach Gary Pinkel’s tenure at MU, depth. The Tigers used waves of substitutes, including six players coming in on nickel packages, to contain the nation’s No. 1 offense.
“With an offense like that you have to sub,” defensive back Nino Williams II said after the game. “We just had to have fresh bodies in there so we could last.”
Missouri has given up 23.2 points and 237.4 passing yards in its turnaround season, good enough to rank No. 53 and No. 80 in Division I.
“We are trying to improve every week,” cornerback Calvin Washington said. “We just have to eliminate the big plays and play hard each game.”
The Tigers’ defensive improvement has not been a steady climb, though.
Things started well enough for the inexperienced unit. Although it allowed Illinois to gain 411 yards, the defense limited the Illini to one touchdown and 15 points. A week later, the group dominated Ball State, allowing 41 yards rushing in the Tigers’ 35-7 win. The young Tigers got their first shutout a week later against Eastern Illinois, holding the Panthers to 221 yards.
Although many wanted to praise the MU defense for its sudden turnaround, Pinkel said the unit had a lot of improving to do.
He proved to be prophetic a week later when tiny Middle Tennessee State rang up 483 yards and 40 points in a narrow win for the Tigers. Against Kansas on Sept. 27, everything seemed to fall apart at the seams for MU. The Jayhawks torched the defense for 207 rushing yards and 35 points.
When it seemed like the Tigers’ season could be lost and the youthful defense had lost all confidence, Missouri had a bye week at the right time. Pinkel convinced the group to play with confidence and the defense, along with the rest of the team, bounced back in a big way.
Trailing Nebraska in the third quarter, Kinney gave a fiery speech that ignited his teammates, for the Tigers shut down the Cornhuskers’ potent running game in the fourth quarter and picked up five turnovers on the way to a 41-24 win.
Kinney and Brandon Barnes have anchored the defense from the linebacker spot. Kinney has 94 tackles, Barnes 74.
The new-look Missouri defense hasn’t done much differently with its schemes, but the addition of a few high-level athletes has made a big difference for a defense that desperately needed a facelift.
Williams has given the Tigers a leader and playmaker at free safety. Defensive end Zach Ville has been another solid junior college addition for MU.
The new blood includes redshirt freshmen Dedrick Harrington, Brian Smith and Washington, each of whom has made an instant impact.
The defense’s ability to create turnovers is, perhaps, its biggest strength. The Tigers have 10 fumble recoveries and seven interceptions. MU is No. 2 in the Big 12 Conference in turnover margin and third nationally.
Williams leads the defense with three fumble recoveries and Barnes’ two interceptions is a team high.
Pinkel said his defense has improved quite a bit, but there is more work to be done.
“There’s no question we’re better,” Pinkel said. “We’re not near as good as we’re going to be. We’ve got a lot of good young players. I think we’ve made good progress.”