Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA — When the Missouri football team lined up against South Dakota State on Saturday, most figured it was a mismatch in favor of the 24th-ranked Tigers over the Football Championship Subdivision Jackrabbits. But there was one player who probably wasn’t a fan of the big-school, little-school descriptor.
Penton, a 5-foot-10, 185-pound sophomore cornerback, had the unenviable job of covering Jason Schneider, the 6-foot-5, 225-pound receiver who set a single-season record at South Dakota State last year with 78 receptions.
Schneider, a preseason all-Missouri Valley Football Conference pick, also totaled 1,088 yards through the air in 2013, good for second-best all time among Jackrabbits. With 131 more receiving yards and seven more receptions, he will be among the top 10 South Dakota State receivers in those categories.
“Our coaches have been telling us all week long, all season long that this guy was a great back and potentially an NFL back,” Penton said.
Schneider’s big frame became a big target for the Jackrabbits in the second half Saturday, when Zach Zenner — himself the holder of the second-best rushing yardage total in school history — was held to just five yards on eight carries after accruing 98 yards in the first half.
Backup South Dakota State quarterback Zach Lujan began looking to Schneider, who had not yet been targeted, in the Jackrabbits’ opening drive of the third quarter. He reeled in 37 yards on back-to-back catches, and when South Dakota State completed a two-point conversion a play later, it was a familiar sight: a pass to Schneider over Penton.
Suddenly, it was a three-point game, and the Jackrabbits had a go-to play: Pick on Penton.
Did he take it personally?
“I really did,” Penton said. “I don’t blame them, though. They did a good job of putting me to sleep with the run game, so they got a couple big plays on me.
“But the real good player snaps back in to it and takes advantage of them going to their side.”
Penton snapped back in a big way.
After Marcus Murphy answered with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, the Jackrabbits went back to their aerial assault. Lujan completed two passes to Jake Wieneke, who finished with 107 receiving yards, and it appeared the Jackrabbits would cut the lead once again by exploiting the Tigers’ secondary.
But with the ball on Missouri’s 22, Lujan tried to find Schneider again in the corner of the end zone. Instead, Penton got his revenge, an interception in the end zone.
“I felt like I had a big play,” he said. “I had to really focus in on that interception. I felt like they were trying to go at me the second half, so I had to wake back up, focus in a little bit more.
“I was in Cover 3. (Schneider) tried to give me a double move, but I stayed deep, didn’t bite on the double move, and the ball was in the air. I just made a play on it.”
The Jackrabbits didn’t score again the remainder of the game. Though Schneider would add 67 more receiving yards in the second half, he didn’t make a catch for more than 10 yards until the fourth quarter when he promptly fumbled a 22-yard snag into Missouri’s red zone.
After the departures of E.J. Gaines (first-team All-SEC) and Randy Ponder at cornerback, Saturday’s game was Penton’s first with the starting role all to himself.
“He made a big play,” coach Gary Pinkel said. “You know, he’s a very talented guy. He’s capable of being a great player, but you’ve got to be consistent. “He did a lot of good things, and there were certainly some fundamental things he could’ve done better, like everybody … but he’ll learn from all of those.”
Pinkel stressed Penton’s improvements will come from working on technique, but he also noted there’s a special mentality required of succesful cornerbacks.
“You’re out on an island. You talk about a guy that has to have guts and a lot of self-confidence,” Pinkel said, “because you’re out there all (alone) and everybody sees you, too.”
Though the Tigers left the field with fewer than 300 passing yards allowed and their 14th-straight season-opening win, Schneider is hardly the last test Penton will see this season at receiver, especially in a conference that requires Missouri defenders to cover receivers like Marquez North (6-foot-4, 221 pounds).
“To be honest, I think that was a great first game to get us ready for the SEC,” Penton said. “(Schneider) really got us ready this week.”