Why the MU defense was the silver lining of Saturday’s loss to Georgia

Missouri’s defense didn’t allow an offensive touchdown until the second half of play Saturday.
Defensive tackle Walter Palmore and linebacker Brandon Lee (right) tackle Georgia running back D'Andre Swift during Missouri's 43-29 loss to the Bulldogs on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018.

There were a lot of fingers to point in Missouri’s 43-29 week four loss to Georgia. Blocking referees. A nonexistent pylon cam. That 11 a.m. kickoff. Sheer luck.

Now, with those aside: There were a laundry list of problems for Missouri on Saturday afternoon, but – although giving up 43 points – the Tiger defense seemed to bounce back from its poor performance in a close-shave win over Purdue a week prior. Coach Barry Odom seemed to sum it up pretty well after the loss.

“I thought in the first half we played as good a defense as we’ve played,” Odom said. “We were put in some adverse situations and we responded well.”

In fact, the Tigers’ first half defense set a new bar for itself, which, according to cornerback Christian Holmes, was made clear by senior defensive tackle Walter Palmore at halftime.

“[Palmore] came out in front of everybody and said: ‘We set the standard. This is what it is now,’” Holmes said.

Although Missouri finished the first half down 20-7, it was without the benefit of an offensive Georgia touchdown. Bulldogs kicker Rodrigo Blankenship tallied two made field goals to go with a punt block and fumble return.

And, in an odd twist, the Tiger defense allowed fewer points than both its offensive and special team counterparts, which linebacker Cale Garrett attested to sound playmaking on his unit’s part.

“Everybody wants to make their play, but they want to make it within the constraints of their job,” Garrett said. “So it’s a certain level of execution that I thought we did really well on today.”

Contain was the name of the game for Missouri’s first half defense.

A three-headed monster (or Bulldog, if you will) of D’Andre Swift, Elijah Holyfield and James Cook had each allotted over 20 carries through the first three weeks of play and combined for 424 yards on the ground. Swift and Holyfield combined for just 76 yards after two quarters at Faurot. Cook didn’t have a single rush attempt. However, that was expected – at least to Terez Hall it was.

“We pride ourselves on run defense,” the senior linebacker said. “They’re a good team, but it wasn’t nothing we hadn’t seen before.”

The stoppage of the run game was impressive, but it wasn’t everything.

Quarterback Jake Fromm, who led the nation in completion percentage coming in (80.4 percent), also seemed to be limited by Missouri in the first half. He finished with 66 yards, no scores and one interception. He also finished with a 42.8 completion percentage.

Perhaps the sweetest statline of all for the Mizzou defense’s first half came from the whole unit, as Georgia finished just 2-for-8 on third down conversions.

Just a 13-point game, the Tigers were down but looked to be in a manageable, promising situation at halftime. This was a team that went from giving up a record number of passing yards to a backup quarterback to shutting down a standout quarterback and the No. 2 team in the nation the next week.

But what about the second half? Well, once again, Odom wrapped it up in post game.

“We did some good things,” Odom said, “but was it good enough?

“No. Because we didn’t win the game. If you give up big plays, that’s usually going to result in touchdowns.”

The big plays made have been few and far between against Georgia, but their impacts were still felt.

First, Fromm completed a 33-yard touchdown pass early in the third quarter. Then, he completed another for 64-yards on the next drive – a controversial call, it almost turned into a 100-yard fumble return for a touchdown the other way. After that, another touchdown pass for 54-yards on the first drive of the fourth quarter.

At that point the eventual 43-29 loss was essentially sealed, with a few other guffaws from Missouri putting the final nails in the coffin, including a turnover on downs that led to a failed challenge.

While Garrett prided the defense’s execution, he made clear when asked about what still needs to improve just how detrimental those plays were.

“Those are killer,” he said.

Even with a new standard of defensive play, it seems Missouri hasn’t reached its true peak in that facet, at least in the eyes of most of its players. Some didn’t even find a positive from today’s performance.

When asked if he thought today’s performance was any bit encouraging for this defense, Terez Hall had a pretty simple answer.

“Nah,” he said. “We just need to get better.”

Specifically, he pointed to turnover margin, a spot where Missouri seemed to fall flat Saturday as Georgia forced three fumbles and caught an interception. Missouri’s Holmes had an interception on Georgia’s first drive of the game, but that would be the only turnover the team recorded.

What was impressive about this team was just how much they’ve grown in under a week, but it’s hard to say things went from day to night.

Things improved, yes – pressure was applied to the quarterback, and red zone and third down defense was staunch. But with that, some things stayed the same, mostly those pesky big plays.

Missouri’s defense is caught somewhere in between, but ultimately, Saturday was a step in the right direction. And with a bye week upcoming, it will look to take it another step further when it heads to the other Columbia to face South Carolina in two weeks.

“We’re going to keep working,” Odom said. “We played better football and we’re going to continue to grow and move in the right direction … I think we’ve got an opportunity there to keep moving in the direction to be a pretty good defensive team.”

Edited by Bennett Durando | bdurando@themaneater.com

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