COLUMBIA — A defense wants to be on the field for just three plays. Three plays lead to a punt. Punts put the offense back on the field with the opportunity to put more points on the board and help keep the defense fresh.
That wasn’t always the case for Missouri in Saturday’s 42-28 victory over Iowa State. In fact, half the time that was not how it went at all. The Tigers came out on top, yet couldn’t seem to keep the Cyclone offense to three-and-outs.
“We had trouble on third down getting off the field,” coach Gary Pinkel said. “If you convert those and get our punt return out there, it’s that simple. That was a lot of their execution, but we felt we should have executed better.”
This isn’t a new concern for this team. An inspired defensive effort has been the story of the conference season for the Tigers, yet they have been frequently exploited on third-down plays. Tiger opponents convert third downs on Missouri 42 percent of the time. The one-win Cyclones continued the trend by converting 11 of 20 third downs.
Those numbers did not sit well with members of the defensive unit.
“You can look at it as them doing something good or us doing something bad,” linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. “We haven’t been doing anything well to get off the field on third down and we got to fix that.”
They Cyclones controlled the ball in large part because of those conversions. Several Iowa State drives were prolonged by more than one third down conversion to keep possession. A methodical rushing game, along with a school-record 33 completions by Cyclone quarterback Brett Meyer, kept the ball in Iowa State’s possession for over 38 minutes.
The letdowns were not the kind that players and coaches could fix by drawing up some adjustments. Iowa State was within three points of the Tiger lead toward the end of the second quarter.
After the game, the Tigers found their effort a little disconcerting.
“I wouldn’t say we were discouraged, just disappointed,” linebacker Brock Christopher said. “We know we were better than that to keep them off the field, but it’s just frustrating as a defense.”
Going back as far as the Oklahoma loss, players, such as Weatherspoon, have been all too aware of the tendency to give up sizeable third down yardage. In fact, the Cyclones had a third-down conversion on every drive but three.
A lone third down bright spot occurred on a fumble recovered for a touchdown in the end zone by defensive tackle Lorenzo Williams. For some players, those happenings need to be more frequent as the season goes on.
“It isn’t adjustments that needed to be made, just plays that need to be made,” Christopher said. “It’s up to us to make those plays.”