Keeping the No. 8 team in the nation below all its season averages on offense is one way to prove you are a legitimate defense.
That is what the Missouri defense did against Texas on Saturday, holding the No. 16 offense in the nation to 299 yards of offense in the 28-20 loss. That total was well below the Longhorns’ season average of 442.2 yards.
The Longhorns’ 28 points were the most by a Missouri opponent this season but was not a result of poor play by the defense.
Texas scored one touchdown on an interception and another interception return set up the Longhorns for a short 12-yard touchdown drive.
The effort put Missouri atop the conference in total defense for the second straight week and makes the Tigers eighth in the nation in that category, allowing 266 yards per game.
The Tigers also rank third in the conference in scoring defense, allowing 15.2 points per game, the 15th least in the nation.
Missouri’s defense had high expectations coming into the season with nine returning starters and a new 4-3 defensive scheme.
Through six games, the Tigers’ defensive players have exceeded most of those expectations.
“We thought in our minds we were going to be a good defense,” defensive end Xzavie Jackson said. “We just needed our coaches to come in and tell us, ‘You guys are going to be good.’ We were like, ‘OK, we’re going to be good.’”
Coach Gary Pinkel identified two reasons for the Tigers success on defense this year.
The first is the experience that comes with nine returning starters and the second is the effectiveness of the 4-3 defensive scheme that Missouri implemented during the 2003 season.
“I think our personnel is playing better than it has ever played, even though we do have nine returning starters,” Pinkel said. “About half the things we’re doing on defense are different than they were a year ago. We’re doing some good scheme things.”
Defensive end Zach Ville had a simpler explanation for the success of the defense.
“What’s making us excel is that we all feel like we’re brothers,” he said. “We’re just together. We work together, We sweat together, so that’s how we do it.”
That feeling, combined with a shutdown pass defense has enabled the Tigers to frustrate opposing teams.
After having nine interceptions last year, Missouri has 12 with five games left in the regular season. Opponents have struggled to gain yards through the air, with the Tigers allowing 152.2 yards per game, the best in the conference and ninth best in the nation.
“That shows that you’re playing good football in a good conference,” safety Nino Williams II said. “There is pride in trying to stay at the top.”
The defensive line has also been strong, with Missouri holding opponents to 113.8 yards per game on the ground. The 193 yards allowed Saturday against Texas, the nation’s second-best running team, is the most the Tigers have allowed this season.
Texas’ running ability made the difference in the game, when the Longhorns put together an 11-play, 71-yard scoring drive in the third quarter that featured 57 rushing yards from tailback Cedric Benson.
Benson leads the nation in rushing with 164.7 yards per game and the conference in scoring with 10 touchdowns.
Saturday’s game against Oklahoma State will again challenge Missouri’s defensive dominance in the Big 12. The Cowboys are No. 2 in the conference in scoring with 37.7 points per game.
Missouri also gets no rest after Benson, facing the nation’s second-best rusher, the Cowboy’s Vernand Morency, on Saturday. Morency is slightly behind Benson with 163.3 yards per game and nine touchdowns.
Jackson said the defense looks at the game as another opportunity to prove it can handle difficult opponents.
“We’re good, we’re not great yet,” he said. “We’re trying to get to great. Just because we’re No. 1 in our conference, that’s nothing to us. We are trying to be No. 1 in the nation.”