Before the season began, Missouri's most difficult challenge appeared to be Texas. Many marked that game down as a loss for the growing Tigers, and that's exactly what happened. The Tigers were right there at the end of the game; a score and a two-point conversion on Missouri's final drive might have forced overtime in Austin. The Tigers performed well but were limited by two first-half interceptions by junior QB Brad Smith.
Many of the Tigers' best attributes were highlighted that afternoon…
The secondary has stepped up its play this season. After combining for nine interceptions in 13 games last year, the Tigers have already surpassed that mark, accumulating 13 interceptions through seven games this season. The defense's newfound aggressiveness has helped balance out the offense's heightened tendency to give the ball away.
Senior CB Shirdonya Mitchell has been the top contributor, already chipping in four picks. After moving over from wide receiver, Mitchell has been a standout on the defensive side of the ball, as errant passes have found him more often than not. Mitchell made the biggest play in Missouri's biggest win of the season, tearing a ball away from a Colorado receiver that turned a Buffalo touchdown into a Missouri touchback. (And it keeps getting better: Mitchell became a father for the first time Sunday, when his wife, Crystol, gave birth to Shiriah Chali Mitchell.)
Junior CB Marcus King shot ahead of senior A.J. Kincade early in league play and has been Missouri's quietest contributor. King has two interceptions, two fumble recoveries and is tied for seventh on the team with 27 tackles.
Junior S Jason Simpson leads the team with 61 tackles and made a game-altering interception return that swung the Tigers' matchup with Baylor firmly Missouri's way. With a strong past few weeks, senior S Nino Williams has moved into a tie with senior LB James Kinney in tackles, with 56. He also chipped in an interception with a long return against Texas.
The defensive line has stifled opposing running games all season. Although there have been times when it struggled (see: fourth quarter at Texas, second half against Oklahoma State), the line has contributed throughout the opening stages of Big 12 play.
Senior Atiyyah Ellison and junior C.J. Mosley have anchored the middle of the line. The pair has combined for 75 tackles (19.5 for loss), six sacks and eight quarterback hurries. Mosley has had the best season of anyone on the line, racking up 38 tackles, five sacks and a fumble recovery. Mosley has said offensive lines continue to focus on Ellison, giving him room to operate, but he has taken advantage of every situation presented to him.
End Brian Smith has come out of nowhere to lead the conference with six sacks. He did next to nothing during nonconference play before erupting when the real season began. Smith is still primarily used against obvious passing situations, limiting his tackles to 14. Still, the undersized sophomore has been in the backfield constantly the past month and provides a dangerous speed rush option on the outside.
Senior Zach Ville has had a quiet season, but the numbers are there. He has 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble to go with 6.5 tackles for loss. Sophomore Xzavie Jackson finally got on the sack board with a pair against Oklahoma State, perhaps reaffirming his capabilities and making the line even stronger. The Tigers must continue to get consistent performances from this group in the vital North-vs.-North matchups coming up in the next month.
The tight ends have been the most consistent offensive contributors. Without this unit, there is no telling how much the Missouri offense would have struggled, especially in the red zone.
Martin Rucker has been a revelation, making 17 catches for 214 yards and four touchdowns. Rucker has shown he has the size, speed and strength to be a big contributor in major conference play as a freshman, an ability rarely seen at this position. Rucker has become one of Smith's favorite targets in the red zone, including a touchdown against the Cowboys. Rucker has made at least two catches for at least 28 yards in every conference game this season, with highs of five catches against Oklahoma State and 48 yards at Texas.
Senior Victor Sesay has taken his "demotion" in stride and continues to catch almost everything thrown his way. Even with an oh-fer at Baylor, Sesay has made 11 catches in conference play. Take out the Baylor game, and he has averaged nearly four catches a game, quality production from a backup tight end. As he exhibited at Texas, Sesay has great hands and is equally adept as a blocker. But his most important contribution is providing a helpful atmosphere that has allowed Rucker to flourish.
The Colorado win on Oct. 2 had the potential to launch a strong conference season. That has not worked out, but the Tigers seemed to do everything right against the Buffaloes.
The Tigers held a slim 10-9 halftime lead and did not dominate the second half. Junior WR Sean Coffey made the prettiest play of the season, taking a short Smith pass, evading three defenders and scoring from 51 yards out. That touchdown, combined with Mitchell's reverse-pick-six, gave the Tigers the win.
Statistically, the Tigers were dominant. They knocked Bobby Purify out of the game for a stretch and ended up limiting the Buffaloes to 80 yards on 28 carries. Colorado was able to move the ball through the air when it needed to, but three interceptions sank the Buffalo offense. Missouri, meanwhile, had its most balanced performance, gaining 228 yards on the ground and 189 yards through the air.
The Colorado win seemed to foreshadow a special season for the Tigers. It has not worked out that way, but this game was still key.
Check back tomorrow for what has not gone the Tigers way to this point in conference play.