Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — The Missouri defense has been good. Often, it’s been great. Now it might have to find a way to be perfect.
The Tigers’ D forced Florida to punt nine times and held the Gators’ offense to 14 points in a 21-3 loss Oct. 10. Missouri cut out the touchdowns the next week but still fell 9-6 at Georgia.
But with an offense playing as bad as just about any in the country, the Missouri defense might not have a margin for error.
“I don’t think we have to play a perfect game, I just — well, we may have to play a perfect game, I don’t know,” linebacker Kentrell Brothers said. “I mean, our offense is in a funk right now. Everyone knows it.”
Any flaws in the Missouri defense Saturday were few and far between. The Tigers held Georgia to fewer than four yards per play, the first team to do so this year, and allowed the Bulldogs a season-low 298 total yards of offense. Georgia ran for just 2.7 yards per carry against Missouri. The Bulldogs had not previously averaged fewer than 5 yards per carry in any game.
The biggest mistakes — if you can even call them that — made by Missouri on defense Saturday were good plays nonetheless. They just weren’t perfect. On four passes Saturday, the Tigers had a clear shot at an interception but allowed the ball to fall to the Sanford Stadium grass.
“When you look at it, we always think of it as a positive, still, because the other team’s not catching the ball at all,” cornerback Aarion Penton said. “So that’s always to our advantage. But we always want the home-run ball as well, because that’s points. And a DB that runs a 4.2, catches the ball in stride, I mean nobody’s going to stop them.”
Points were at a premium Saturday and the Tigers might have been able to find some on a few of those near-interceptions.
“There are probably a couple touchdowns we had there,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “Touchdowns that are right in our hands, game changers.”
The Tigers nearly had one of those touchdowns on the first play of the game. Linebacker Michael Scherer tipped Georgia quarterback Greyson Lambert’s pass up and into the hands of safety Ian Simon, who zigged and zagged 39 yards down the field before being tackled just shy of the end zone.
“I thought I was going to get in the end zone for sure,” Simon said, “and looking back at it there were a couple things I could’ve done (differently) for sure. I just didn’t want to take the risk of having the ball slip out of my hand or something like that, especially being in that stadium, being in that environment.
“That’s a split-second decision. Looking back at it, I definitely could’ve reached the ball out and got in the end zone. I wish I would’ve done that. But it was definitely a bang-bang kind of thing.”
Still, the Tiger offense was able to begin its first drive of the game just inches away from a 7-0 lead.
“You can’t really ask too much more than that,” Brothers said. “He gets a pick, takes it down to the half-yard line. I mean, it’s almost a gimme.”
This year, however, nothing has been a gimme for the Missouri offense. Quarterback Drew Lock muffed the first-down snap under center, setting Missouri back at Georgia’s 3-yard line. Two Russell Hansbrough runs failed to break through, and the Tigers had to settle for three points.
Missouri had a chance to end the Bulldogs’ second drive on an interception when Lambert threw a pass right into the hands of safety Anthony Sherrils. Sherrils couldn’t reel in the interception, however, and Brothers’ diving effort at the rebound came up short.
“Dropped picks are always going to stand out, in a win or in a loss, because that’s field position that you get to give to your offense,” Simon said. “Instead of making them punt, you get the ball right there, wherever you return the ball to.”
Sure enough, the Missouri defense forced a punt on the drive, but the Tigers were pinned back to their own 14-yard line and promptly went three-and-out.
A miscommunication on Georgia’s first drive of the second quarter led to Lambert lofting a pass right to cornerback Kenya Dennis, who was unable to haul in an over-the-shoulder catch. The only player in Dennis’ vicinity was Simon, who put his hands to his head in dismay at the missed opportunity. The drive ended in Georgia’s first points of the day, a 29-yard field goal by Marshall Morgan to tie the game at 3.
Sherrils had his second shot at an interception on Georgia’s second drive of the second quarter. The ball, thrown right at his helmet, fell to the ground and the Bulldogs were able to punt to Missouri’s 10.
“It’s like a receiver dropping balls,” Pinkel said. “You just keep working at it, working at it. Those would’ve been huge if we could’ve held on to those.”
The third time looked to have been a charm for Sherrils, whose fourth-quarter interception sealed a 9-6 win in September against Connecticut. A Lambert pass on third-and-goal at Missouri’s 7-yard line was hauled in by Sherrils close to the ground.
Too close to the ground, it turned out, and the pass was deemed incomplete when referees reviewed the replay and ruled the ball had hit the grass.
Georgia tied the game at 6 on the next play with a 24-yard field goal.
“We know that we need to get the ball for the offense as many times as possible just to put them in good situations and give them confidence,” Penton said. “We take it to heart, even though it may not seem like it. We talk about it, and we still work on fundamentals every day.”
The Tigers did not allow a touchdown. They were the first team to deny Georgia a 100-yard rusher this year — despite spending nearly 40 minutes on the field. And yet, Missouri fell to 1-3 in conference play.
Definitely good. Probably great. But not quite perfect.
So, is that perfection attainable? Depends who you ask.
Penton: “You really can’t play a perfect game every game. Something’s going to happen.”
Brothers: “I think it’s possible, but I don’t think it gets any better than what we did on Saturday.”
And yet, without any offensive support, the Tigers’ defense might not have any other choice.
“It’s possible,” Simon said. “We’ve just got to go out and do it.”