Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri’s defense was playing well before the Tigers’ game against Florida on Saturday. In its first two Southeastern Conference games, Missouri had yet to allow 400 yards of offense to an opponent, despite spending a combined 78 minutes on defense.
Still, there was something missing from the Tigers’ defensive play. After having forced at least one turnover in 47 straight games, Missouri headed to Gainesville, Fla., on a new streak — a three-game takeaway drought.
Defensive coordinator Dave Steckel decided to hammer a message home by giving each defensive player a business card bearing a Missouri logo and a message.
Takeaways equal victory.
The Tigers took the message about as literally as possible Saturday, forcing six turnovers against Florida, which led to 24 points, more than enough to defeat Florida 42-13. On a night where Missouri’s offense produced just 119 yards, the Tigers’ D all but won the game singlehandedly.
“That’s what we’ve been lacking in these past couple weeks in our defense, we felt,” said Shane Ray, who forced a fumble and was named SEC defensive lineman of the week. “(We) made an emphasis this week to go out there and attack the ball, and we did a good job.”
Missouri forced three fumbles and three interceptions. One of each were returned for touchdowns.
“There are so many different things that have to happen right,” said linebacker Michael Scherer, who pointed out Missouri could have reached seven takeaways if the Tigers had recovered a fumble forced by Markus Golden. “Some of it’s luck, some of it’s being in the right spot in the right time, and some of it’s just the skill of getting the ball away and coming up with it and picking it up off the ground.”
Even without the turnovers, the defense was a force throughout, allowing Florida 283 total yards of offense, a season-best for the Tigers. A 34-yard Latroy Pittman reception allowed when the Tigers already led 42-7 was Florida’s only play of 20 or more yards. In fact, it was just the fourth such play Missouri has allowed in SEC play, all coming through the air.
Cutting down big plays has been a key adjustment for Missouri, which allowed plays of 45 yards or longer in all but one its non-conference games.
“All that comes down to preparation and knowing where you’re supposed to be and getting where you’re supposed to be and relying on the person next to you to be where he’s supposed to be so you don’t try to do too much,” Scherer said. “That’s really what’s cut down the big plays is we’re in the spots we’re supposed to be and we’re not out of gaps.”
Missouri’s low point defensively came in a home loss to Indiana in which the Tigers allowed nearly 500 yards of offense and four plays of 30 or more yards.
“We drew a line in the sand and said, ‘Hey, you know what? We want to be known as a defense,’” linebacker Darvin Ruise said. “It was kind of predicated off of that, and we just went from there. We actually kind of stepped up our play.”
Scherer added: “We couldn’t keep playing the way we were playing. We couldn’t keep letting up those big plays, and I think everyone on defense stepped up and took the challenge.”
Four weeks later, the Tigers are enjoying themselves.
“It was one of the most fun games I’ve had in a while,” said Braylon Webb, who intercepted two Florida passes. “We were having fun flying around the whole night, and it was just real easy for us.”
Missouri’s defense didn’t even mind spending more than half the game on the field for the third straight game thanks to Marcus Murphy, who, like the Missouri defense, outscored Florida with two return touchdowns.
“When we were out there the whole time in the Georgia game, we kind of decided we liked being out there,” Scherer said. “So this weekend we decided to keep the (Missouri) offense off the field and go ahead and play a little bit more.”
So the cards worked?
“I’m going to say they worked,” said Scherer, who keeps the card in his backpack. “I mean, that’s the only thing that changed the past three weeks to this week. … It’s something that reminds you all the time, and when you think about it that much — it sounds corny and stupid — but you really do think about it when you’re out on the field.
“Especially this week, I know I was going for the ball as much as I ever have in my life, probably. So, if you look at it, it worked.”