COLUMBIA — Throughout the season, Missouri’s defensive ends have been showered with praise — and deservedly so.
By TOD PALMER
The Kansas City Star
Still, the Tigers wouldn’t have the third-best run defense and fourth-best scoring defense in the Southeastern Conference without a collection of largely unsung heroes in the middle of the defensive line.
“Without question, the D-tackles are very critical to us,” Missouri defensive coordinator Dave Steckel said. “They’re playing very well, and the thing that people lose sight of because of our defensive end situation is those kids are so athletic.”
Using a five-man rotation, No. 9 Missouri, 8-1 overall and 4-1 in the SEC, has relied on depth to anchor defensive Steckel’s 4-3 scheme.
It starts with junior Matt Hoch, who has emerged as a playmaker at defensive tackle, alongside junior Lucas Vincent and redshirt freshman Harold Brantley, who have split reps at nose guard.
Senior Marvin Foster provided steady production as Hoch’s primary backup before tearing his biceps tendon Saturday against Tennessee, which means freshman Josh Augusta will get even more time at that spot moving forward.
“Those guys have been playing pretty well, and we rotate a lot of guys in there,” defensive-line coach Craig Kuligowski said. “On average, we’re probably giving up 30 pounds against the guys we’re playing against, but those guys have done a great job as far as rush defense of not losing any ground, being physical and playing low.”
Because the Tigers clog the middle, opposing teams haven’t had much luck running between the tackles. Teams also have struggled to get outside against Missouri’s defensive ends.
As a result, the Tigers have forced most opponents to become one-dimensional, which, in turn, has made the pass rush even more punishing.
“When you have two guys in the middle taking up a lot of double teams, it allows us to do our job,” junior defensive end Kony Ealy said. “Without the job those guys are doing, we wouldn’t be getting all the sacks we’re getting.”
Missouri, which leads the SEC with 27 sacks, allows only 109.4 yards per game on the ground, which ranks 17th in the Football Bowl Subdivision, and its 69 tackles for a loss rank fifth.
Four of the Tigers’ nine opponents have failed to crack 100 yards rushing, and only Georgia — 31 carries for 164 yards — has topped 130 yards.
Meanwhile, Missouri has given up only six rushing touchdowns, which is second to Alabama in the SEC (three), and opponents are averaging only 3.5 yards per carry, which again is second to the Crimson Tide in the conference (3.4).
Even more impressive, the Tigers have done it despite losing All-SEC defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson to the NFL.
“They upped their competitiveness and their drive in the offseason, losing such a great guy and great competitor in Sheldon,” junior right tackle Mitch Morse said. “But I think there’s no drop-off at all with those guys.”
Individually, the stats won’t blow you away.
Hoch has 22 tackles, including 11/2 sacks. Vincent has 21 tackles with 11/2 sacks and three tackles for a loss. Brantley has 31/2 tackles for a loss among his 18 total tackles. Augusta has three tackles for a loss and two sacks.
“We spread the stats around the room, but we’re all out there making plays and running to the ball,” Vincent said. “It’s not just one person. “
The end result is that, collectively, the Tigers’ interior line group is getting the job done.
To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.