Through six games, undefeated Missouri leads the SEC in turnover margin and points off turnovers. A large part of that equation is the way that James Franklin and the Missouri offense have taken care of the football. The other large part of it is the league-leading 13 interceptions that the Missouri defense has come up with.
Anyone who has seen Missouri play knows that the defensive pressure that the Tigers are able to get on the opposing QB is a major factor in creating those interceptions. Thus far, the Tigers have been able to put pressure on opposing QBs while primarily rushing just four defensive linemen.
Early in the season, the Tigers were getting pressure on the QB, which led to interceptions. But lately, the Tigers are also getting sacks, and at Georgia, Missouri sophomore DE Shane Ray came up with a sack and forced a fumble that teammate Michael Sam scooped up and raced into the end zone for a score. Earlier this week, Ray took time to talk to ShowMeMizzou.com about that TD-producing sack.
“They lined the tight end up on me, and I felt like I had a one-on-one with the tight end,” said Ray, describing the play from his perspective. “So you know, I was like, I got to work a move on this guy. So, I did an inside-swim move, and (DT) Harold Brantley was taking on a double-team, and the tackle wasn’t able to come off the double-team in time to stop me from coming around. You know, Aaron Murray didn’t see me coming, and I was just able to get there and make a good hit on him. Honestly, I didn’t see the ball come out at all. I hit him, and I got up and I started to celebrate. I turned around and Mike’s running into the end zone. I didn’t even see him scoop it up. It happened so fast!”
I asked Ray how it felt to come up with such a big play?
“I mean, it definitely felt good,” replied Ray. “Plays like that is what your team expects out of you………………………………………… Essentially, it’s a dream come true. So, to be able to come through and make a hit on a great quarterback like Aaron Murray, and get my teammate a take-away and a touchdown, there’s no greater feeling than that!”
In the last three games, the Tigers have recorded 14 sacks, all of which have been credited to a Missouri defensive lineman. Earlier this week, Florida Head Coach Will Muschamp cited the play of Missouri’s defensive line.
“(Michael) Sam and (Kony) Ealy are two NFL-type defensive ends,” said Coach Muschamp. “Both guys do a great job of pressuring the quarterback and creating negative plays for them. Sam leads the SEC in sacks and tackles-for-loss.”
Of course, there’s more than Sam and Ealy. With co-starter Shane Ray, and now with the development of Markus Golden, Missouri has a very strong four-man rotation at DE, and a five-man rotation inside. The penetration and push from the inside is integral to the success of Missouri’s outside pass rushers.
“We want to pressure the quarterback,” explained Missouri Defensive Line Coach Craig Kuligowski. “And be able to pressure the quarterback, not only on third down, but on first down. We train these guys from the time that they get here to be able to do that. That’s what they’re coached to do, and they’re doing a good job of it.”
Along Missouri’s defensive line, the interior guys are getting a good push up the middle, which helps to create pressure in the quarterback’s face, and limits the quarterback’s ability to step up into the shrinking pocket.
Against Georgia and against Missouri’s other opponents this season, the defensive pressure has had an accumulative affect.
“Any quarterback that’s taking a lot of hits during the game, I think he’s going to feel that pressure, and he’s going to want to get the ball off,” explained Ray. “Our goal is when we get to the quarterback, we’re going to make him feel us. We’re going to hit him as hard as we can legally, and we’re going to make sure that the quarterback is not able to comfortably sit in the pocket and dissect our coverages.”
“We’re only as good as our interior guys,” explained Ray. “I mean, if those guys are not pushing that pocket, and preventing the quarterback from stepping up, there’s no way us ends can get our job done. All of our defensive tackles, they’re doing a great job of clogging up those gaps, and being able to stop runs, and preventing quarterbacks from getting free. And that’s what’s freeing us defensive ends up to come and basically to sweep everything up.”
Coach Kul talked about playing a run-heavy team like Florida.
“We’ve got to be great in our gaps, which penetration helps that, obviously,” explained Coach Kul. “And, we’re going to try to change the line of scrimmage, which penetration helps that. Then, we’ve got to do a great job of hustling to the football………………………………………………….. try to gang tackle, swarm.”
Coach Kul provided some insight into the weekly in-game adjustments. The coaching staff tries to prepare a course of action for every possible scenario, and then during the game, the coaches are continually making a series of adjustments.
“We spend all week, about every hour of the day during the week, picking out a game plan,” explained Coach Kul. “And then, we spend about every minute of the game adjusting that game plan to, you know, counteract what they’re doing, because they’re game-planning all week, too.”
I asked Coach Kul how his defensive linemen are doing?
“Pretty good,” said Coach Kul, with a little laugh. “Pretty good.”