Missouri defense gets off on the right foot this time around

Memories of the 43 points allowed to Missouri State behind them, the Tigers started strong in their outing against Tennessee-Martin, though room for improvement remains.
Linebacker Cale Garrett reaches for the leg of UT-Martin quarterback Dresser Winn during a 51-14 defeat of the Skyhawks at Farout Field on Saturday.

Missouri’s defense began the 2017 season 364 days ago with a whimper, as Missouri State came to Memorial Stadium and waltzed down the field for three straight touchdowns and 35 first-half points.

Allowing 43 points in an opening win over an in-state foe and FCS-bottom feeder was the precursor to a defense that sputtered at the beginning of last season and sent Missouri into a 1-5 tailspin.

But Missouri flipped the script in the second half of the season and a six-game win streak showed signs of a possible turnaround.

The big question going into the season was which defensive unit would show up.

Even with a 51-14 win in the season opener over UT-Martin, Missouri’s biggest offseason question is far from being answered. But the dominant performance certainly did catapult the defense ahead of last season’s group that gave up nearly 500 yards to a three-win FCS program to open last season.

Junior linebacker Cale Garrett said this year’s group was more assignment sound, and that improved preparation put the team in position for a strong start to the year.

“It set the standard for this whole year,” Garrett said. “I’d say our baseline this year is miles ahead of what it was last year.”

Senior Terry Beckner Jr. and the interior defensive line were able to dominate the line of scrimmage and stop the run game. UT-Martin rushed 29 times for 94 yards.

Redshirt junior safety Khalil Oliver had three tackles in the first half before being held out for precautionary reasons with an ankle injury. Having the veteran safety at the back end of the Missouri defense helped open up cornerbacks Adam Sparks and DeMarkus Acy in the secondary.

“The different guys allow us to do a lot of different things,” Adam Sparks said. “Khalil is real smart. He allows coaches to make certain checks that gives the defense a lot of free range.”

Some of Missouri’s biggest conference games this season will be against run-heavy offenses. The nation’s third-ranked team in Georgia comes to Columbia on Sept. 22, and Missouri hosts a Kentucky team led by Benny Snell, one of the top running backs in the country, in late October.

Missouri’s run defense was promising, but it came against a physically undermatched team, and some concerns in pass defense still remain.

Senior Walter Palmore was able to break through the line and stop Skyhawk quarterback Dresser Winn on third and short along, with redshirt sophomore Jordan Elliot breaking through to force some throw-aways, but that was the extent of pass pressure in the first half.

Winn was able to use his mobility to escape linemen and keep Missouri from registering a sack until senior Terez Hall broke through midway through the third quarter.

The defensive line was dominant against the run and was able to get penetration from defensive tackles Palmore, Beckner and Elliot, but the starting defensive ends struggled to get pressure, registering no quarterback hits or tackles for a loss.

Missouri’s only quarterback hits in the first half came from Garrett and Elliot, while Elliot had Missouri’s only tackle for a loss in the opening half.

The lack of pressure gave Winn time to pick apart the Missouri defense and set up UT-Martin’s two scores. On a fourth down play from the Missouri 27, Winn looked to be caught before he rolled to his right and found running back Jaimiee Bowe on the right sideline for a 23-yard gain to keep the drive alive. Bowe would score two plays later.

Winn also found LaDarius Galloway for a 51-yard score down the right sideline.

Missouri will need its pass rush to improve before conference play, in which SEC opponents can use the time to pick apart the Tiger secondary.

But, pass rush issues aside, this performance signafied a step in the right direction for the Missouri defense.

“Last year wasn’t anything like this offseason,” senior Cam Hilton said. “It’s been a whole 180.”

Edited by Bennett Durando | bdurando@themaneater.com

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