Missouri defense avoids meltdown despite seven penalties in second quarter

The Tigers had 10 penalties for 100 yards in the first half.
Sophomore linebacker Nick Bolton carries his fourth quarter interception into the endzone for a pick-6 during Saturday's home opener against West Virginia. Bolton had two interceptions in the 38-7 win. Madeline Carter

On almost back-to-back plays during the second quarter of Missouri’s home opener against West Virginia Saturday, the Tiger defense was called for almost identical pairs of fouls.

The two fouls were a defensive holding and a personal foul: first, a roughing the passer call, second, a hands-to-the-face call. In both cases, the Mountaineers declined the holding call and accepted the latter, moving them downfield 15 yards.

Despite the four defensive penalties it accrued, Missouri avoided a second- quarter meltdown like the one it suffered against Wyoming in its season opener. The Tigers outscored the Mountaineers 21-0 in the quarter and held a 31-0 lead at halftime.

Those penalties — supplemented by two from the first quarter — gave the Mountaineers 65 free yards in the first half.

In comparison, West Virginia only earned 78 yards of its own in the half.

“We had a hundred yards of penalties, and they were all in the first half,” coach Barry Odom said. “That’s hard to overcome. I’m glad that our team responded in the fashion and the way that they did. We gotta get that cleaned up.”

Odom noted that the team has had officials at almost every practice this season, and that fixing those first half penalties will come down to watching film.

The Mountaineers were called for three defensive penalties of their own in the half, only two of which were accepted to give the Tigers 30 free yards. Both were pass interference calls on attempts where graduate transfer Jonathan Nance was quarterback Kelly Bryant’s intended target.

Change was evident when Missouri returned to the field to start the second half. The Tigers weren’t called for a single penalty in the third quarter, although they also never found the endzone. They managed to stay penalty-free in the fourth as well.

While the penalties certainly put a damper on Missouri’s defensive performance in the first half, two interceptions — one by sophomore linebacker Nick Bolton, the other by redshirt senior safety Ronnell Perkins — almost made up for it.

Bolton’s interception was returned for 18 yards, and eventually turned into Bryant’s first passing touchdown on the ensuing drive, a 26-yard completion to redshirt junior tight end Albert Okwuegbunam.

“It was a great call by coach [Ryan] Walters,” Odom said. “By formation, by personnel, by alignment, by situation on the field. It played out exactly like he called it.”

Perkins had his interception on the following West Virginia drive, six plays in, after senior linebacker Cale Garrett got a hand on redshirt junior quarterback Austin Kendall’s pass.

“Turnovers are so important,” Odom said. “Keeping the ball number one, and then getting it back defensively. Our goal as a defense is to get the ball back for our offense.”

Bolton had another interception — returned 20 yards for a touchdown — during West Virginia’s first drive of the fourth quarter with redshirt junior Jack Allison in at quarterback. Bolton is the first Tiger to have two interceptions in one game with one returned for a touchdown since Sean Witherspoon in August 2008 against Illinois.

Missouri’s offense was grateful for the extra opportunities its defense provided, and the points it added on its own.

“Man, it feels great,” Nance said of the turnovers. “Especially a pick-6 or anything, it just feels great. For them to know that we’re behind them and cheering for them, I know it feels good for them too.”

Edited by Wilson Moore | wmoore@themaneater.com

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