Passing the test… sort of

The Missouri defense maintained its spot atop the Big 12 in total defense after facing its most talented opponent of the season Saturday in Austin. The Tigers limited the Longhorns to 299 total yards and forced three turnovers but did not win the only statistic that mattered.

There are many ways to judge a defense. Measuring the number of yards it allows is one of the most common. Judging by that statistic, the Tigers lead the Big 12 and are No. 8 nationally, allowing 266 yards per game.

Averaging how many points it allows is another method. This seems like a rational way to judge a team, as the team that scores the most points wins every game, not the team that allows the fewest yards. There are drawbacks, however; a defense doesn't always allow all of a team's points, as turnovers and bad special teams play often lead to scores. Regardless, the Tigers are third in the conference and 15th in the nation in this category, allowing 15.2 points per game.

No matter how you break it down, the Missouri defense is performing well, exceeding the expectations of many fans and critics around the country. Its performance is about what coach Gary Pinkel expected, though.

"I expected to play better defense because we're pretty solid in most every spot," he said.

Missouri returned nine defensive starters this year, but its look is much different this time around. After switching to a 4-3 base set, players were shifted all around the field. Sophomore DE Brian Smith led the Tigers with eight sacks last season and now leads the conference in sacks (with five) but has yet to start a game this year. The linebacker corps is completely restructured, with two newcomers joining senior James Kinney. In the secondary, senior Shirdonya Mitchell and junior Marcus King are becoming dominant corners, solidifying the rear of a talented group.

"I think every one of those players has to be playing better," Pinkel said of the team's returning starters. "Just because you're back doesn't mean you're gonna be better, unless those guys play better. I think they're all stronger, faster, quicker."

The Longhorns were the Tigers' first big test of the season, boasting weapons that all of Missouri's previous opponents combined would struggle to match. The Tigers did an admirable job slowing down TB Cedric Benson, the nation's top rusher, holding him to 150 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries. The Tigers struggled a bit with QB Vince Young, allowing him to hurt them on the ground and through the air in the first half. Young was not a factor in the second half, as a late hit from sophomore LB David Richard knocked Young out of the game.

"That'll definitely slow him down," Smith said. "Once he was out of the game, all they did was run with Cedric Benson. When they did try to pass, it was just for a measly five (yards) or it was incomplete. It obviously helped, to knock their team leader out of the game."

Chance Mock, Young's replacement, managed only 39 yards on 4-of-10 passing. Benson keyed a fourth-quarter drive that secured Texas' win, but, as a whole, the Missouri defense dominated the second half.

Senior S Nino Williams was proud of the unit's performance, even though Texas' passing game is mediocre, at best.

"A team is only as good as you let it be," Williams said. "If Texas would have thrown the ball for 200 or 300 yards, everybody would have been saying they are a good passing team. We just did our job. We didn't let them become two-dimensional and being able to bring out the pass. When they did, we were pretty good against them."

Smith also appreciated the statistical results, but he was more concerned with other numbers.

"I don't feel that we passed the first test because we came out with the loss," Smith said. "We did OK; we didn't do bad. I think we have a lot of improvement to do, as far as tackling and wrapping up. A couple of those touchdowns could have been prevented if we wrap him up and take him down."

Kinney made an uncharacteristic error on Young's first-quarter touchdown run. With a free shot at sacking Young, Kinney pulled up and just put his arms around him, thinking Young had already thrown the ball and hoping to avoid a 15-yard penalty. Young still had the ball, though; he escaped Kinney's grasp, scooted to the sideline and outran everybody to the end zone from 23 yards out, giving the Longhorns a 14-0 lead late in the first quarter.

It was not a play a senior leader usually makes, but it is hard to say it was anything more than a fluke.

"Once everybody realized he didn't throw the ball, we wanted to get on Kinney," Smith said. "But during the game, you want to keep everything positive and keep his head up, along with the rest of the team...

"But stuff happens."

A lot of stuff has happened to get the Tiger defense where it is right now. To stay there, the Tigers will have to continue to grow.

"Half the season's over," Pinkel said. "We gotta turn in for the rest, but I'm pleased with the progress so far."

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