Mizzou's Defense isn't too Shabby, Either
Few have seemed to notice, although it's not something about which Missouri's defensive players are spending time fretting.
"We have a great offense, you don't want to take anything away from them," said sophomore linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. "But offense sells tickets and defense wins championships. If we keep it going, we'll get our credit where credit is due."
In Big 12 play, Mizzou is allowing a conference-best 19 points per game. A run defense that was second worst in the conference last year is giving up a paltry 83 yards per game, and an even more impressive three yards per carry – even though those numbers are skewed by the fact that Mizzou's prolific offense has forced opponents to throw the ball quite a bit.
The defense has forced 22 turnovers this season, third best in the conference. Combined with an offense that leads the Big 12 in scoring, it's a formula few opposing teams can even contend with, let along beat.
Head coach Gary Pinkel, like most football coaches, is obsessed with turnover numbers. During an offseason meeting with his players, he stressed the importance of forcing more turnovers, pointing out that in four conference wins in 2006, they'd forced six more turnovers than their opponents. In four losses, he told them, they'd been minus-six in turnover margin.
"It wasn't real complex," Pinkel said of his statistical analysis. "It's vivid."
Shortly thereafter, a new team motto was coined: ‘It's all about the ball.' And when camp began, their newfound emphasis was obvious; every time the defense forced a turnover during drills, the entire unit immediately raced to the defender who'd taken away the ball and huddled around, placing one hand each on the football.
Practice has taken a new tone for the Mizzou defense this year. There are more contact drills, harder hitting and more of a focus on snatching the ball from their talented offensive counterparts. It's carried over into games not only in terms of forcing fumbles and grabbing interceptions, but also in aggression; the defense has become a physical unit that wants to hammer you into the turf on every play.
"To be able t punch, steal and rip the ball from the opponent, there's several techniques of doing that … There's fundamentals and techniques and mentality that's involved with all of that," defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus said.
"Everybody's trying to pull their weight and do their job in all the phases. We understand what's going to need to be done on all of those levels in order to take this thing where we want to take it."
In its first three games, against Illinois, Ole Miss and Western Michigan, MU's defense allowed 34, 25 and 24 points. In six games since then, however, it's giving up an average of 17 points. This, keep in mind, has been against tougher overall competition.
"Coming into this season we were kind of inexperienced, so I think it's natural for a team the first few weeks [to suffer growing pains]," Eberflus said. "They're starting to understand what they're capable of doing and how they're capable of doing it. They're just maturing as a group."
Weatherspoon's emergence has played a vital role. After playing mostly on special teams a year ago, he's quickly developed into a force on the outside. He's the fourth-ranked tackler in the conference at 9.4 stops per game, and at 230 pounds with 4.4-second 40-yard dash speed, he has all the makings of a future star.
"Sean Weatherspoon has all the talent to be as good a player in this league, at linebacker, as there is. All he needed to do was get experience and get better and better and better," Pinkel said.
"He's a lot different football player right now, and in four weeks he'll be a lot different, and next year he'll be a lot different … He's improved every game."
And then there's Stryker Sulak, whose emergence has been both abrupt and integral. On Oct. 10 against Texas Tech, his interception and 38-yard touchdown return gave MU a 7-0 lead. A week later, after the team's sluggish first half against 29-point underdog Iowa State, he stripped Cyclones quarterback Bret Meyer on ISU's first possession. The ball bounded into the endzone, where teammate Lorenzo Williams pounced on it for a touchdown.
Sulak, one of the speedier defensive ends in the conference, shot after the ball immediately and was just a moment behind Williams, or else he'd have had his second defensive score in two weeks. It appears the 6-foot-5, 250-pound redshirt junior from Texas is living up the to expectations placed on him after he earned first-team freshman All-Big 12 honors in 2005, also sharing team freshman of the year honors with tight end Chase Coffman.
"Just preparation," Sulak said, explaining his increased impact. "I knew I had to step my game up in order for us to be good."
He and junior end Tommy Chavis have been crucial in the progression of MU's defense, which lost senior pass rushers Brian Smith and Xzavie Jackson last offseason. Smith, the school's all time leader in sacks, combined with Jackson for 15 ½ sacks last season despite Smith missing five games due to injury.
"There's no question," Pinkel said, "those defensive ends are all over the place."
In the middle, senior defensive tackle Lorenzo Williams (four sackshas been his usual, reliable self. Always a leader, he's become the voice of the defense in the absence of senior safety Pig Brown, who was playing at an All-American level before suffering a season-ending Achilles injury against Iowa State.
Junior linebacker Brock Christopher and senior strong safety William Moore have also been playing the best football of their respective careers; both rank among the Big 12's top dozen tacklers in conference play. True freshman Carl Gettis shot up the depth chart in training camp, claimed a starting spot and has never been in danger of losing it. Pinkel has raved about his performance as much as any other player on the defense.
And there have been plenty of contributions from others, like junior defensive back Justin Garrett, senior linebacker Van Alexander, senior cornerback Darnell Terrell and junior defensive tackle Ziggy Hood.
Still, few observers outside of Columbia seem to be noticing that this year's Tigers are more than an offensive freakshow.
"We don't really mind that we're being overlooked," Sulak said. "If we don't get attention, we don't care. We just want to win."
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