Columbia — In a 41-20 loss to Georgia a week ago, Missouri’s defense seemed to wear down in the end, as the Bulldogs opened up their passing game and connected on several big plays to seize the lead for good in the second half.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
But on Saturday, with Arizona State threatening to do the same - and Missouri on the verge of blowing a 17-point lead - the defense stepped up, as safety Kenronte Walker knocked down a fourth-and-goal pass on one drive and hauled in the game-winning interception on the next to clinch a 24-20 victory at Memorial Stadium.
Walker was clearly the hero, but he certainly had help. Missouri’s front seven was ferocious, as the Tigers finished with 10 tackles for loss and three sacks. Defensive end Michael Sam had 1 ½ sacks, while linebacker Will Ebner and defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson (nine tackles) and Kony Ealy each had a half sack.
“Tonight we just calmed down, played one snap at a time, just believed in each other,” Ealy said, when asked to compare Saturday’s win to the Georgia loss. “You didn’t hear any bickering or anything on the sidelines. Everybody just stayed together and that’s what counts.”
When asked if there had been some bickering during the Georgia game, however, Ealy eased off those comments.
“There wasn’t any bickering, just high emotions and we weren’t settled,” he said. “One play at a time, the little plays (were) magnified in that game.”
Ealy was then asked if this lack of focus was something coaches were intent on correctomg during practice.
“They corrected it alright,” Ealy said with a laugh. “In practice, all you heard was Coach (Dave) Steckel, Coach Kul (Kuligowski) telling the whole defensive line to just play your gaps, make your plays, don’t worry about anybody else.”
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel was happy with his defense's effort.
“That was fitting for those guys who battled all day,” Pinkel said of Walker’s game-ending interception. “It says a lot about their character and will to compete through adversity…I’m real proud of them. It just says so much about them as a group.”
But for all of the defense’s heroics, it’s worth noting that Arizona State still moved the ball in the second half, nearly rallying from a 24-7 third-quarter deficit. The Sun Devils gained 203 yards in the second half, compared to only 93 in the first half.
“I think they picked the tempo up a little bit in the second half,” Ealy said.
Sophomore quarterback Taylor Kelly, who completed 14-of-23 passes for 178 yards and a touchdown, was intercepted twice but also made a few plays when it mattered. That includes a few ridiculous throws on third down where he escaped pressure and threw strikes for first downs in the second half.
“We also had them stopped twice and their quarterback is diving and jumping up on the sideline throwing balls across the field,” Pinkel said. “He made a couple of plays that most guys could never make. We were out of those drives and you get a great quarterback that makes two huge plays, so give them credit for that.”
Arizona State coach Todd Graham agreed, and was optimistic about his quarterback's future, even in defeat.
“He made spectacular plays,” Graham said of Kelly. “There's no doubt he will be a star quarterback."
But on Saturday, it was Missouri’s defense that shined, though the Tigers know they still have room to improve. Personal foul and pass interference penalties on Arizona State’s second-to-last drive nearly set up the game-winning score, and there’s still that not-so-small matter of the defense almost blowing a 17-point fourth-quarter lead.
“Obviously we’ve got to do better than that next week,” Ealy said of Missouri’s impending road test against South Carolina. “But other than that, everybody did a good job.”
Berkstresser breaks streak
When Corbin Berkstresser got the nod at quarterback for injured starter James Franklin, it marked the first time since 2002 - Pinkel's second season as coach - the Tigers had their starting quarterback miss a game for any reason.
Pinkel could only remember one other time this has happened to a team he was coaching, and it dates way back to his days as the offensive coordinator at the University of Washington.
“This one time Chris Chandler got hurt against Arizona and Cary Conklin had to finish the last two games,” Pinkel said. “It must have happened some (other) time, but it has very rarely ever happened to me. I’ve been very fortunate because it happens a lot to a lot of different people. It changes the game, we all know that. Ask the Indianapolis Colts, it’s different. But everybody has to step it up a little bit.”
Meiners returns to action
Senior guard Jack Meiners appeared in a game for the first time this season. Meiners, a projected starter who sprained his left knee right before the season, estimates he played 20-25 snaps on Saturday.
“This game tonight was a huge confidence booster for me, knowing I can go out there and still do some things though I’m not exactly at 100 percent yet,” Meiners said. “In practice, I’ve been limited with a red pullover so getting this live game action, you can’t really simulate it anywhere else.”
Meiners said he felt his knee start to tighten up in the second half, and position coach Bruce Walker removed him as precaution. Max Copeland, who started the game at right guard, took his place.
“Max is a great competitor, a great player,” Meiners said. “For what he may not have in talent, per se, he makes up (for it) with his intensity and physicality. He plays at a very high intensity level, we almost need to bring him down at times. So he’s been doing great.”
Even still, Meiners – who was called for a holding penalty on his first drive of the game – is excited about the future. Provided he earns his starting job back, his addition could shift Copeland to the bench and provide some valuable depth for Missouri’s banged-up offensive line.
“I’m very confident I’ll be back at 100 percent next weekend,” Meiners said.
Kicking woes continue
Missouri’s kicking game continues to be a question mark, as redshirt freshman Andrew Baggett missed three of his four field-goal attempts.
But while Baggett – who has now gone 3-of-7 on field goals this season – would appear to be an easy target for criticism, Pinkel stressed afterward that here’s more that goes into his misses than meets the eye.
“We had bad snaps on PAT/field goals, I think four in a row,” Pinkel said. “When T.J. (Moe) is fumbling the ball around, all your timing is off.
“It wasn’t like we had a good snap, good hold, he missed it. There’s a lot more stuff that we saw and recognized. We have to consider snappers and all those things.”
Numbers to remember
*Star recruit Dorial Green-Beckham finished with four carries for 19 yards, and also had one catch for two yards. He logged only a single catch in Missouri's loss to Georgia.
*Linebacker Andrew Wilson, a Raymore-Peculiar graduate, forced his team-leading third fumble of the season. Missouri has forced a turnover in every game this season.
*Arizona State’s 33-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter is the longest Missouri has allowed all season.
*Missouri was penalized 10 times for 85 yards, while Arizona State was penalized seven times for 54 yards.
*Missouri converted 10-of-22 third-down conversions, Arizona State completed just 2-of-12.
*Baggett’s 46-yard field goal was a career-long. Baggett is a graduate of Lee’s Summit North High School.
*Freshman tight end Sean Culkin did not participate in Saturday’s game. He was one of four true freshmen singled out for first-year duty by Pinkel, but since he suffered a broken finger in preseason camp, the staff entertained the notion of redshirting him. With Culkin logging zero playing time in Missouri’s first three games, that looks like a distinct possibility.
*Saturday’s game marked the first time since 2008 Missouri has had multiple sellouts in one season, and the Tigers could have more sellouts this year, too. The Alabama game on Oct. 13 will almost assuredly be sold out, while only general admission tickets remain for the Oct. 27 homecoming game against Kentucky.
Saturday’s game was also Missouri’s first non-conference sellout since 1984, when Notre Dame came to Columbia. The Tigers had sold out exactly one game in each of the previous three years.
To reach Terez A. Paylor, call 816-234-4489 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/TerezPaylor.