Defense takes ‘great focus’ against Indiana

Tigers forced three turnovers and posted one defensive score.

Junior linebacker Kony Ealy flies through the air Sept. 21 to bring down Indiana's Ted Bolser in the Tigers' 45-28 win over the Hoosiers. The Missouri defense forced three turnovers in the game.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Coach Gary Pinkel said there are a number of takeaways from Missouri’s (3-0) 45-28 handling of Indiana (2-2) at the Hoosiers’ Memorial Stadium on Saturday night, but one stands out.

“I think we’ve got real good players,” he said. “You can sit in the locker room and clap your hands and say ‘team, team, team’ all you want, but if you don’t have guys make plays, you’re not going to win.”

It was those playmakers, especially defensively, who held one of the nation’s top-ranked offenses to just four scores, one coming late with the second-team offense on the field, and forced the Hoosiers into three turnovers.

Indiana averaged 58.6 points per game before the Hoosiers hosted the Tigers. After a game that left Big Red black and blue, that average took a hit. The Hoosiers’ new normal: 51 points per game.

“Our players took a great focus to this,” defensive coordinator Dave Steckel said. “They took a great stance as far as unity, and I think we played really well together as a defense in the beginning.”

IU quarterback Nate Sudfeld was under duress in the pocket while trying execute Indiana’s pass-heavy attack. Junior linebacker Kony Ealy charged Sudfeld and picked off the freshman’s screen pass, returning it 49 yards for a touchdown, late in the first half, then sophomore linebacker Kentrell Brothers snagged another pick to end the half on a forced Hail Mary. Junior defensive back Darvin Ruise gobbled up one more takeaway in second half.

“(Sudfeld) definitely knew the pressure was there, so he had no choice but to scramble out of the pocket or or get the ball out fast,” Ealy said. “We did our best to get that pressure and create takeaways.”

Pinkel said afterward this win, a crucial road victory against a power-conference team, was indicative of a team improving and gaining confidence.

“I think we’re a better team now than we were a few weeks ago,” he said.

It was evident in the confidence Missouri exuded from the opening kick. From rocking new helmets to pulling off a fake field goal their second drive, the Tigers looked to Pinkel like a team on the rise, propelled by playmakers like Ealy who led the Tigers to reel in their 33rd-consecutive game with a takeaway, the best active streak in the NCAA, a statistic to which Pinkel responds, “We need more.”

The way he sees the team trending, that may not be too far away.

“The good news is we’re getting better,” he said, “and the best news is we’re not close to how good we can be. I really believe that.”

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