DALLAS – Matt Eberflus was afraid his message wasn’t being understood.
The past two weeks the Missouri defensive coordinator talked to his players about the importance of sticking with their assignments, playing more physically and forcing turnovers.
So when Eberflus asked his players if they accepted their mission, a simple nod did not suffice.
“He said it again,” defensive lineman Lorenzo Williams said. “We had to scream out loud that we did.”
On Tuesday in the Cotton Bowl it was the Arkansas Razorbacks who got the message. The Tigers’ defense stymied Arkansas all game long, dominating the line of scrimmage and forcing crucial turnovers in a 38-7 win.
Williams said that if the Tigers wanted to win their first Cotton Bowl, the defense would have to stop All-American running back Darren McFadden and his dangerous accomplice Felix Jones.
McFadden and Jones formed one of the top running back tandems in the country this year. Jones led the nation with 9.08 yards per carry, and McFadden, the two-time winner of the Doak Walker award as the country’s best back, was coming off a three-touchdown, 206-yard rushing performance against then-No. 1 LSU.
Eberflus revealed to his players the secret formula to stopping them. It wasn’t earth-shattering science, but his hypothesis held true: If you want to shut them down, you have to stay in your gaps and play tougher than you have all season.
The Tigers did just that. They swarmed to make tackles and made life miserable for the Arkansas offensive line. McFadden was held to 105 yards rushing, 40 less than his season average, and his longest run was just 19 yards.
When Arkansas ran out of its “Wild Hog” formation, where McFadden lines up at quarterback in the shotgun, the Tigers snuffed it out.
“They did a great job,” said McFadden, who will likely be a top pick in April’s NFL Draft if he decides to forgo his senior year. “They came out there working hard. They wanted it more than us.”
Missouri safety William Moore waited a month for his chance at McFadden. Moore gained national attention after stepping up in the wake of safety Pig Brown’s season-ending injury, but he wanted to prove he could hold his own against the best players in the country. On Tuesday, he did.
Moore was everywhere on defense, making a team-leading 13 tackles, forcing a fumble and picking off a pass that he returned 26 yards for a touchdown. He was voted the game’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player for his efforts.
“You don’t want your safety making that many tackles,” Moore said, “but I just believe in going in there and getting in the mix and playing physical.”
Moore accounted for two of the Tigers’ five takeaways, all of which came in the second half. Even quarterback Chase Daniel got in on the action.
Daniel threw an interception right to defensive end Adrian Davis early in the fourth quarter. To make up for his error, Daniel plowed Davis to the ground to make the tackle. The ball squirted free on Davis’ way down, and offensive lineman Colin Brown quickly pounced on it.
Williams said they might have to make room on defense for a guy who can hit like that.
“I think (Moore) might be in danger of losing his job next season,” Williams said, drawing laughter from reporters. “He had excellent form for a quarterback.”
When they weren’t forcing turnovers, the Tigers applied constant pressure on Arkansas quarterback Casey Dick, sacking him three times and holding him to 197 yards passing.
Defensive tackle Ziggy Hood anchored the line, recording one and a half sacks for minus-14 yards.
“He’s always played well,” coach Gary Pinkel said. “Today he was dominant.”
Hood had to be. He made a promise to Eberflus.
“He challenged us to be great,” Hood said. “If things go wrong, shake it off, don’t worry about it. Just go out there and do something that no one in Mizzou history could do, and that’s win 12 games.”