Tigers' defense defies doubters

Sunday, October 7, 2007 | 11:59 p.m. CDT; updated 10:58 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
MU sophomore linebacker Sean Weatherspoon led the Tigers nine tackles.

COLUMBIA — Missouri defensive lineman Lorenzo Williams stood before his teammates Friday night, his voice trembling as he tried to keep his emotions under control.

A senior co-captain, Williams preached the importance of staying calm and playing smart against visiting Nebraska on Saturday night. But Williams failed to heed his own advice. The magnitude of this game was too great. In a sudden outburst of rage, he kicked a marker board, sending it crashing into a nearby wall. He wanted to send a message.

“It was to spark my team,” he said. “Starting the Big 12 (Conference) season is huge, and with the potential of this team, the sky’s the limit if we play our A game. So that’s what I was trying to get our guys to do.”

Williams’ theatrics worked. The Tigers (5-0, 1-0) played their best game of the season in front of 70,049 gold-clad fans Saturday night at Memorial Stadium, pounding Nebraska (4-2, 1-1) in every phase of the game.

Quarterback Chase Daniel threw for a career-best 401 yards, and the Tigers’ defense stuffed the Huskers offense en route to a 41-6 win.

“I was so proud of my football team,” MU coach Gary Pinkel said. “It was as complete of a football game as we’ve played for a long time.”

Heading into the game, most people expected MU’s fourth-ranked offense to play well against the Huskers’ shaky defense. The question was whether the Tigers’ defense, which ranked 93rd in the country before Saturday, could make enough plays to keep it from becoming a shootout.

That question was answered on Nebraska’s first offensive possession. Feeding off the emotion of the largest home crowd in 23 years, the defense forced the Huskers into a three-and-out. It never let up from then, surrendering just 297 yards of total offense (down from its season average of 467.8) and holding the Big 12’s leading rusher, Marlon Lucky, to 57 yards.

“We love when people talk about our defense,” said safety Pig Brown, who had five tackles and an interception. “It makes us go out with a chip on our shoulder and show people what we’re capable of. I think we did a great job of that tonight.”

Perhaps the most surprising aspect was how physical the defense played. Brown said the team has a “hit of the week” competition, and after Saturday’s game, there were plenty of nominees. Safety William Moore had a bone-crushing hit on Nebraska’s first drive, and linebacker Van Alexander drove Nebraska running back Cody Glenn backward on a fourth-and-1 play late in the third quarter.

“It definitely wasn’t just any other game,” said linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who led the team with nine tackles. “We’ve been talking about this game since the spring. We just went out there and dominated.”

Williams said he knew the defense was capable of the performance. It just needed to play with more passion.

“Western Michigan ran on us, Illinois State ran on us, but we felt like we were better than that,” he said. “We just wanted to come out and make a statement and play good defensive football.”

Now all the questions can finally stop. At least until next weekend, when the Tigers visit Oklahoma.

TEMPLE HOBBLED: Running back Tony Temple rolled his ankle after making a 20-yard catch in the second quarter. Temple went into the locker room before halftime and didn’t play in the second half. Pinkel said he is hopeful Temple will be ready for Saturday and that he’ll know more later this week.

MOVIN’ ON UP: The Tigers moved up to No. 11 in the Associated Press and ESPN/USA Today Coaches’ polls. It is MU’s highest spot in the polls since being ranked eighth in 1981. Oklahoma (5-1, 1-1) moved up to No. 6 in the AP poll and No. 5 in the coaches’ poll after beating Texas. Kansas (5-0, 1-0) made its debut in the polls at No. 20 after beating Kansas State 30-26.

BLAST FROM PAST: Former MU quarterback Brad Smith scored his first NFL touchdown Sunday. Just before halftime of the New York Jets’ 35-24 loss to the New York Giants, Smith beat defender Kevin Dockery to catch a 16-yard pass from Chad Pennington in the right corner of the end zone to put the Jets ahead 14-7.

GAMEDAY: Officials of ESPN College GameDay, a weekly college football pre-game show that provides analysis and predictions for the weekend’s biggest games, contacted the Oklahoma Athletics Department on Sunday morning to notify it that the network will be coming to Norman, Okla., for next week’s MU-OU game. The network typically chooses its site based on the top matchup of the week, and this game features the two highest ranked teams that are playing each other. The show will air on ESPN from 9 to 11 a.m. Saturday. The game, however, will be televised on the Fox Sports Network at 5:30 p.m. Saturday.

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