Since his arrival at Missouri, Gary Pinkel has consistently emphasized the importance of turnovers in determining the outcome of every game.
This season, his defense looks like it buys into that philosophy.
The Tigers have forced 17 turnovers this season, including 12 interceptions, through six games. In 2003 the Tigers had 24 takeaways, including nine interceptions, a mark they passed in their fifth game of the year. Three takeaways last Saturday against Texas tied Missouri with Texas A&M for the best turnover ratio in Big 12 Conference play.
“Turnovers are huge,” defensive lineman Brian Smith said. “Coach Pinkel preaches that to us every day in practice that turnovers equal victory. It’s proven to be true.”
Improvements in the secondary and defensive line during Pinkel’s tenure have fueled Missouri’s ability to get more turnovers.
Cornerback Shirdonya Mitchell, a former wide receiver who switched positions last year, leads the team with four interceptions and has a chance to finish his career with more interceptions than receptions. As a wide receiver Mitchell had eight receptions for Missouri in 2001 and 2002.
Cornerback Marcus King and safeties Jason Simpson and Nino Williams II have also been instrumental in the defense’s ability to confuse and outplay opposing quarterbacks and wide receivers. The Tigers are first in passing defense in conference play, allowing 129 fewer passing yards on the season than second-place Texas.
“Having Marcus King back there with a little more experience and Mitchell is starting to come on, having those two guys back there certainly helps,” defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus said.
With the Tigers averaging two interceptions per game, a competition has arisen among the secondary to see which player can lead the team in that category.
“I think guys get excited about it, they certainly do,” Eberflus said. “They get on each other about who has more, that type of thing.”
Simpson said that not only does the competition among teammates drive the Tiger secondary, but the excitement that comes with making game-changing plays has an addictive quality to it.
“Once you get (interceptions), you don’t want to go through a game without getting two or three or at least three or four takeaways because once you get them, you have to have them,” he said.
Although the offense has consistently been careful with the ball in Pinkel’s four years, turning it over eight times this year, the coaching staff and players agree that the improvement in the turnover category for the defense is a result of increased talent.
“We’ve got better athletes, and we’re breaking on the ball,” Simpson said. “A lot of our balls have been not just straight interceptions, stepping in front of the path of the ball, but a lot of tipped balls.”
Many of the tipped balls have been a result of the ability of Missouri’s defensive line to pressure opposing quarterbacks.
The Tigers have 15 sacks and 22 quarterback hurries, and defensive linemen Phil Pitts and Xzavie Jackson have an interception this season. Pitts took his for a 49-yard touchdown in Missouri’s season opener Sept. 4 against Arkansas State.
“If our (defensive) line is giving the right kind of pressure, the interceptions are going to come,” Smith said. “It’s either going to be an interception or a sack.”
Defensive linemen C.J. Mosley and Attiyah Ellison were All-Conference selections last year and have continued their strong play, combining for 65 tackles and five sacks, four by Mosley. Strong play by younger players like Smith and Jackson has also increased Missouri’s ability to hurry quarterbacks and force turnovers.
Pinkel said he would like to see more fumbles from opposing running backs and quarterbacks, but Simpson said the defensive line has shown improvement this season in less obvious ways.
“I don’t even get any tackles anymore and that’s fine with me because our defensive line is playing great,” Simpson said. “If they don’t make the play, (linebacker James Kinney) will make it for a yard or two gain.
“I tell (Williams), we talk about it all the time, I’d rather get three or four tackles and win because that means we’re playing good defense.”
As the amount of turnovers forced has risen, the Missouri defensive players said they have become motivated to try to steal the ball every time they take the field. After forcing three turnovers, but still suffering a difficult loss to Texas on Saturday, the Tiger defense will undoubtedly continue to look for opportunities to make game-changing plays.