The Black-and-goldshirts?

After holding their past three opponents to 501 yards combined, the Tigers have jumped to the top of the Big 12 in total defense. While the team's marquee player continues to be its game-breaking quarterback, the defensive Tigers are starting to make a name for themselves.

Leading your conference in defense is quite an achievement, but leading the Big 12 is a little more impressive than leading, say, the Sun Belt.

A strong performance against overmatched Baylor, along with Texas' inability to slow down Oklahoma, pushed the Tigers to the top of the Big 12 in total defense, surrendering just 259.4 yards per game. While the coaching staff surely noticed that accomplishment, the players claimed they had not Monday.

"Somebody just told me that," junior S Jason Simpson said.

"I really didn't know that until you just told me," senior LB James Kinney said.

It would be extremely unlikely for the Tigers to rest on their laurels and revel in their achievements against No. 9 Texas on Saturday because of a few kind words from the media, so don't plan your hate mail just yet. Following the levelheaded attitude of their coach, none of the Tigers seemed too impressed with the statistic.

"That's just how we are right now," Simpson said. "We have to keep it going to the end of the season because it's not how you start, it's how you finish."

Kinney echoed that cliché, suggesting the defense's only concerns are slowing down the Longhorns.

"We want to come out there and play well and put the offense in good position," he said.

In training camp, coach Gary Pinkel said he wanted his defense to move into the top third of the conference. The suggestion seemed reasonable, especially with Missouri's weak nonconference schedule. The Tigers have seized that opportunity and find themselves on the inside track to the North division title two weeks into league play.

"We're improving," Pinkel said. "I'm very pleased that our defense is making progress. We have to continue to work hard to get better, and I think we can."

Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus took a lot of heat after his unit allowed 350 yards and 20 points to Arkansas State in the season opener. Although in a losing effort, the Tiger defense was much improved against Troy the next week and has dominated since.

Kinney said he could not think of anything that had changed since the opener, nothing that could have pointed to such a rapid improvement.

"I couldn't even tell you," he said. "We made a couple mistakes in that game and they found them. We watch film and we might make 50 good plays, but we're gonna stress the 10 or 12 plays that we messed up on. You're not gonna be perfect, but there are definitely things that can be avoided."

Eberflus suggested the only adjustments made were basic ones.

"You look at fundamentals of the defense that are called," he said. "If you execute those fundamentals, you have a good chance of doing a decent job on defense. If you don't, then you see guys passing the ball on you, running the ball on you. If you execute the calls and do it with good intensity, you have a good chance to stop people."

Simpson might be the best example of that intensity. He plays with an emotion that is palpable and can sometimes get him into trouble. After intercepting a pass near midfield in the second quarter against Baylor, Simpson came within seconds of his first collegiate touchdown, but was dragged down from behind inside the Bears' 10-yard line.

It was the key play of the game and a sign that Simpson could be counted on for more as the season progresses.

"Jason brings a lot to the table in terms of intensity and enthusiasm," Eberflus said. "He's made some strides and we expect him to get better every game."

The pick was part of a larger trend for the Tigers, who have already recorded 10 interceptions through five games, one more than they managed in 13 games in 2003. While Pinkel suggested that he wanted more fumble-forcing hits, he seemed pleased with the takeaways.

"It's nice to see that, it really is," he said. "I think we're a little bit more athletic and a little bit more experienced, a little bit better up front. It's critically important, that turnover aspect."

The Tigers will almost undoubtedly have to force a Texas turnover or two to knock off the heavily favored Longhorns, who have not lost back-to-back games under coach Mack Brown. Further, you have to go back two centuries to find the Tigers' last win in Austin, a 10-0 decision in 1896.

Don't expect the defense to rest this Saturday, just because, at the moment, it leads the league.

"When you look at those things, those are evaluations of (five games) during the course of the year," Eberflus said. "This is where we are at this point; we'll evaluate the stats and go from there."


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