Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA — It would be hard to muster too many complaints about the Missouri defense after its performance in the first six games of the season.
The Tigers are holding teams to 13.5 points per game (ninth in the country, best in the Southeastern Conference) and 275.8 yards per game (11th nationally).
The numbers get even better when you factor in how many extra plays the Missouri defense has had to play as a result of the Tigers’ anemic offense. Teams have gained just 9.6 yards per catch against Missouri (sixth in the country) and 2.86 yards per carry (10th nationally).
And yet, the Tigers have struggled to dominate defensively in one area: takeaways.
Missouri’s opponents have gone without a turnover in each of the Tigers’ losses this year — at Kentucky and Saturday against Florida.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel acknowledged turnovers have been the defense’s one weakness this season.
“Especially when the offense is struggling,” he said. “Short fields can really help.”
All of the Tigers’ takeaways in SEC play came in the third quarter of their win against South Carolina. Missouri’s nine total takeaways — all but two of which are interceptions — rank 56th nationally, and the Tigers are tied for 66th in turnover margin.
“We need to do a better job for our (offense),” senior safety Ian Simon said. “We need to get them the ball back. We need to force more takeaways. So personally, that’s something I’d like to see us do.”
Missouri also struggled with turnovers at times last season. After their nation-leading 47-game takeaway streak came to an end, the Tigers went three straight games without one before busting out with a six-takeaway performance at Florida. From that game on, Missouri averaged two takeaways per contest.
“We’ve just got to be more focused in practice,” cornerback Kenya Dennis said. “Try to get more balls out and get more interceptions in practice. That’s the only way we can get more takeaways.”
The Tigers’ season hasn’t been devoid of takeaways. Missouri’s seven interceptions are tied for third in the SEC. But with an offense struggling under the weight of youth and inexperience, the defense has little room for error.
The Tigers found that out the hard way Saturday. Missouri didn’t allow the Florida offense to score a point after the first quarter, but the Gators’ two touchdowns in their first three possessions were enough to win the game.
“It’s crazy how once you start slow, teams can go up 14-0 and then you end up playing the rest of the game really, really well, and you can’t come back from it,” linebacker Kentrell Brothers said. “That just shows that you’ve got to start fast.”
If there’s one thing besides a lack of takeaways that hurt the Missouri defense Saturday it was penalties. A facemask penalty on freshman Terry Beckner Jr. and a late hit by freshman Nate Howard helped extend Florida’s two scoring drives.
“We’re a coaching staff that cares about penalties,” defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said. “… Obviously we’re not trying to give away free plays. They were mistakes. They’re aggressive mistakes, but they were mistakes. The kids will learn from them, and hopefully we don’t repeat them.”
Still, given its performance thus far, criticizing the Missouri defense can feel like nitpicking at times. But with two conference losses already on their record, the Tigers’ D may need to err on the side of perfection.
“I feel like that’s just become the standard,” Simon said. “We want to play defense at a high level. We want to be known as one of the most physical and toughest defenses in the country, and I feel like we’re working toward that for sure.”