Tigers defense shines in ugly 9-6 loss to Georgia Bulldogs

“I want to play,” Ian Simon said. “I want to play ball. I want to be out on the field. I want to be out there with my teammates. For us, it’s just another opportunity to make a play."
Sophomore cornerback Logan Cheadle (28) and senior cornerback Kenya Dennis (7) sandwich Malcom Mitchell (26) as he tries to catch the ball. The defense held the Bulldogs to 298 yards in the 9-6 loss.

ATHENS, Georgia — Evan Boehm slung his right arm around the shoulder of Cam Hilton and brought the freshman in close.

Physically exhausted, emotionally wasted, the painful strain in both players’ faces said what needed to be said. Following a 9-6 loss to Georgia in which the offense failed to score a touchdown for the second consecutive game, the disappointment of a 1-3 Southeastern Conference record took full effect.

“Bottom line is it’s very, very frustrating,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “It’s about execution and I’m responsible … A sense of urgency would be an understatement.”

At this point, with the offense scoring just 16.57 points per game, Missouri’s defense has been the backbone of this team. Opponents have scored 12.86 points per game against Missouri, but when the offense managed to convert only six first downs against Georgia, giving up nine points goes under the “L” column.

“The defense is giving it their all,” senior center and captain Boehm said. “The offense, I feel, has more to give.”

As the offense continued its woeful struggles, the defense once again put the team on its back, staying on the field for 38:55. When freshman quarterback Drew Lock and his unit would go three-and-out drive after drive, there was the defense, strong and sturdy, holding the jumbled mess that is the 2015 Missouri football team together.

Georgia running back Sony Michel slyly slipped through Missouri defenders for 87 yards on 26 attempts, but when it came down to the wire, the Tigers stopped Michel at the most opportune times.

On third-and-two with less than two minutes left on the clock, Walter Brady stuffed Michel for a one-yard loss in the Missouri red zone. In the end, that tackle for a loss didn’t matter. Georgia kicked a field goal with 1:44 on the clock, and Missouri failed to pick up a first down on their final drive.

Kentrell Brothers had a career-setting night, quietly breaking his single-game tackles record. The senior stopped Georgia 17 times.

“That’s Kentrell,” Ian Simon said. “His play does the talking for him. He’s probably one of the best football players I’ve had the honor of playing with, and I’ve played with some greats.”

Still, even after allowing just nine points against an offense that entered the game averaging 37.2 points per game, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Last week, Missouri defensive players dwelled on the urgent need to create turnovers.

Saturday was a step in the right direction. Michael Scherer tipped the first play of the game into the hands of Simon, who took it to Georgia’s one-yard line. Two mistakes — a fumbled snap and miscommunication error — on the following three plays forced the Tigers to settle for a field goal.

But there’s still pressure in the Missouri locker room to force more turnovers in order to help the offense get in good field position. Kenya Dennis dropped an easy pick in the second quarter and Anthony Sherrils had a goal line snag called back.

“If you’re not nitpicking, you’re not getting better,” Simon said of the increased emphasis on turnovers. “You’ve got to nitpick. You’ve got to find the little things.”

The little things didn’t come together Saturday night in Athens. As well as the Tigers defense played, the stinging reality of a 9-6 score line will travel back with them to Columbia. On the defensive side of the ball, the frustration isn’t necessarily their individual play but the team outcome as a whole.

Being on the field for 77 plays isn’t frustrating for Simon and his defense.

Missouri’s defense is one of the nation’s best, and every opportunity they get to prove that, they do it.

“I want to play,” Simon said. “I want to play ball. I want to be out on the field. I want to be out there with my teammates. For us, it’s just another opportunity to make a play. There’s no negativity. It’s, ‘Hey man, let’s get the ball back.’ That’s it.”

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