Secondary’s struggles become concerning come conference play

After two straight dominating displays against smaller opponents, the secondary failed its first test against a power five opponent.
Missouri defensive coordinator Ryan Walters watches his defense work against the first team offense during a Missouri fall camp practice at the Mizzou Athletics Training Center on August 13, 2018.

After two straight strong performances to start the season, the Missouri secondary looked to be on the rise after an up-and-down display last year.

Against Purdue, the secondary started on a similar note when junior DeMarkus Acy blew up a screen in the backfield but went down with a concussion in the process.

The unit unraveled from there. After Acy was replaced by redshirt freshman Terry Petry, Purdue quarterback David Blough beat Petry twice for gains of 24 and 50 yards before floating a pass in the corner of the end zone to receiver Terry Wright.

In a minute and 18 seconds, Blough, who had 122 passing yards over his first two games, had cut through the secondary like a knife through butter on Purdue’s first possession.

The opening drive would be indicative of a poor showing from the secondary, which almost cost Missouri its 40-37 win over the Boilermakers. Defensive coordinator Ryan Walters looked up at the scoreboard to see Blough had finished day with 572 passing yards, more than any passer against a Missouri defense.

“Anytime you look up and you’re like, ‘Holy cow, they just threw for 570 yards,’ you know it’s not going to be good,” Walters said. “There were good moments at times, but I think we ain’t been like that in a long time.”

Sophomore Adam Sparks was left alone as the lone starting cornerback after Acy’s exit.

“That’s not our standard,” Sparks said. “We feel like we understand what we need to do because we know our standard and we need to get back to that.”

Missouri will need to get back to an improved secondary with its three toughest opponents coming up this season in No. 2 Georgia, South Carolina and No. 1 Alabama.

All three teams are run-first, but often use their quarterbacks to take deep shots down the field.

Part of the struggles came from a drastically different gameplan from Purdue, who shifted an offense that lead the nation with 8.1 yards per carry over its first two games to a unit that was pass heavy.

“It was different because over the last two years you see DNA of 50-50 run-pass,” Walters said. “That wasn’t the case during the game. In hindsight, you play your third down defense the whole game from the second quarter.”

Purdue making that drastic a change to its offense to matchup with Missouri could be concerning, showing that the back end is by far the glaring weakness on defense season. Teams like Georgia and Alabama could shift to a more pass-heavy approach with quarterbacks Jake Fromm and Tua Tagovailoa, who both can burn Missouri with the deep ball.

Last Saturday, the secondary and linebackers got caught several times looking down at the quarterback and biting on play action fakes or coming up early to try and stop the run game.

“For some reason we were enthralled at just looking at the quarterback,” coach Barry Odom said. “We were just a little bit unique on some of the things and how we played within out techniques.”

Linebacker Cale Garrett said even on one of the defense’s few bright spots, senior Cam Hilton’s interception on a botched Purdue trick play, Hilton had to come over and take someone else’s man.

“Just doing our job and maintaining proper eyes is a big thing, just keeping your eyes on your man,” Garrett said. “I fell victim to that a few times, just letting your eyes drift away from your responsibility a little bit is a recipe for trouble.”

Eyes on the quarterback could be an even bigger problem against Georgia this weekend. Georgia is a run-first team that uses the run game to set up play-action throws, the plays Missouri struggled against last week, to gain a lot of its yardage and big plays.

Fromm threw for 326 yards in last season’s matchup and had two throws for over 50 yards against the Tigers.

The struggles against Purdue are concerning for the secondary, but Sparks thinks the game will help them improve for Missouri’s toughest stretch of the season.

“That’s our best way to learn,” Sparks said. “When we have our most mistakes and have our worst games we learn from those. Normally when people have their worst weeks the next week they have their best week.”

Edited by Bennett Durando | bdurando@themaneater.com

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