Mizzou defense seeks to correct cracks exposed by potent SEC
Following a disappointing 35-12 loss at No. 12 Tennessee last Saturday, Missouri defensive coordinator Ryan Walters woke up Sunday ready to coach another game.
Alas, Walters would have to wait. But he’s actively waiting. There’s much to work on.
The Tigers gave up 73 points combined over their first two games of the 2020 season, which began with a 38-19 home loss to No. 2 Alabama on Sept. 26. Now the Missouri defense is faced with another daunting challenge: reigning national champion LSU.
“It’s been sleepless nights for me just trying not to chase ghosts, so to speak, and some of the stuff from a year ago (that LSU did) and really harp on the things they’ve done consistently the last two weeks,” Walters said of No. 16 LSU, which enters Saturday with a 1-1 record. “This is just a different deal, so you’ve got to be prepared for everything.”
This week, the “everything” he referenced includes a change in venue and kickoff time.
The pair of Tiger teams decided mid-week to move their matchup from Baton Rouge to Columbia to avoid the impending threat of Hurricane Delta, which is expected to make landfall Friday in Louisiana.
The game will kick off at 11 a.m. Saturday at Faurot Field.
“You’ve got to be detailed and execute, and we didn't do that enough the past two weeks,” Walters said. “But we're improving and will improve every week and I'm excited to go play. Obviously after the game last Saturday, I was hoping we had another game that following Sunday just to get the taste out of your mouth. I felt like we did not play as well as I believe we should have or can, so I'm excited for Saturday.”
LSU lost 44-34 to Mississippi State in its opener, then beat Vanderbilt 41-7 last week.
Junior quarterback Myles Brennan, replacing Heisman Trophy winner and current Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow as LSU’s starting quarterback, has averaged 341 passing yards per game this season to go along with seven total touchdowns and three interceptions.
“I mean, Joe Burrow is lining up on Sundays right now, you know what I mean? That guy's a special player. You watch the games from last season and it looks like an NFL quarterback running an NFL system,” Walters said of comparing Burrow to Brennan. “The quarterback now is not as experienced. It's hard to compare anybody to a Heisman winner and the first pick in the draft. But (Brennan) is a very good quarterback, and there's a reason why he's starting quarterback at LSU.
“He’s played well, and we have to do a good job of disguising coverages and not giving him the same look snap in snap out. Because if he knows where he's going with the ball, it's there, it's on target, it's on time. He's got guys that’ll go make plays for him.”
Among the top threats LSU coach Ed Orgeron has in his offensive arsenal is junior wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr., who has reeled in 10 catches for 189 yards and caught four touchdown passes — a pair in each of the first two games.
Walters said Missouri must know where Marshall is on the field every play Saturday.
“He’s long and he's more physical and bigger than you think he is just watching the tape. And then he can really run,” Walters said. “He’s obviously savvy, he played a lot of ball last season and was very productive for them. ... He's a special talent. I’m not surprised that they're featuring him and trying to get him involved a lot of different ways.”
Missouri is in the midst of a difficult start to its pandemic-revised 2020 season that includes ranked opponents each of the first three weeks. The games against heavyweights Alabama and LSU were added to Missouri's schedule in August as the Southeastern Conference changed to a 10-game, league-only slate.
Missouri allowed 6.1 yards per play to Mac Jones, Najee Harris and Alabama in the first game of the season, giving up conversions on 9 of 14 third downs as the Tigers fell behind 35-6 before showing some late life.
Missouri was gashed for 232 rushing yards against Tennessee last week, as running backs Eric Gray and Ty Chandler combined for 195 yards and each scored once. Tennessee was 4-for-4 on fourth-down conversions, all on keepers by quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, including a touchdown in the final period to put the game away.
Walters said the Tigers particularly struggled against Tennessee’s jumbo formations.
“When they got into heavy sets, we tried to get it corrected on the sidelines, sometimes we did and it wasn't an issue,” Walters said. “And other times we didn’t and it hurt us. We really made that a point of emphasis this week.”
The Missouri coaching staff has also scaled back some of its defensive call sheet after players lined up late on several occasions when Tennessee sped up tempo.
Walters attributed those struggles to situations when “guys are just thinking.”
“I’ve got to do a good job of getting everybody what they can handle,” Walters said. “So, we've practiced tempo this week. We do it for a period of a week against our offense. … Just the importance of being where you're supposed to be and having your eyes where they're supposed to be before the ball is snapped in order to give yourself a chance.”
Junior linebacker Nick Bolton has been a guiding force for the Missouri defense this year, with 25 tackles through the first two games. The team co-captain posted a game-high 17 tackles against Tennessee last week.
Bolton sets the tone for younger players like sophomore safety Martez Manuel, second on the team with 16 tackles this season, and freshman cornerback Ennis Rakestraw.
“I’m just getting my feet wet,” said Rakestraw, who has seven tackles through the first two games of his collegiate career. “If you get your feet wet against the best and you can actually hang in there, our confidence level shot up a whole lot more.”
Senior edge rusher Tre Williams is hopeful the tough early tests will lead to improved results as the Tigers continue their first season under head coach Eli Drinkwitz.
“It’s easy to clean these things up, mostly because we know the errors,” Williams said of the defense. “If you don't know the errors, then it's hard to clean things up. As long as we know the errors and we just keep going back and fixing those and getting ready, I think that's the most important thing.”
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