Missouri is tied for last in the Football Bowl Subdivision with one sack this season, an unsettling statistic for a fanbase accustomed to a disruptive defense.
Senior defensive tackle Josh Augusta smothered Eastern Michigan quarterback Todd Porter for a 5-yard loss Saturday and has three of the 3 1/2 tackles for a loss credited to Mizzou defensive linemen this season, a big-play drought that is perhaps the most vexing development during coach Barry Odom’s first two games.
It can be attributed, in part, to a philosophical shift.
“We play gaps, and we make sure our guys have gap integrity,” new defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross said. “I don’t know this for a fact, but I think those guys (in previous seasons) were just able to cut it loose all the time. …
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“That’s not how we play.”
Since 2005, Mizzou only finished outside the FBS top 50 in sacks per game three times and only once in tackles for loss per game. The Tigers’ defensive line also had 12 players drafted into the NFL, including four first-round picks, during former coach Gary Pinkel’s 15-year tenure.
“Those guys have always been the guys have gotten the glory, and rightfully so because they’ve been so successful,” said Cross, who replaced Odom as defensive coordinator. “We still want the same thing. Our structure is different on how we get there. I think that’s probably been the biggest adjustment and a little bit of frustration.”
Under former defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski, the fabled architect of “D-Line Zou,” the front four relied more on instincts, making one or two quick reads and charging upfield off the snap.
New defensive line coach Jackie Shipp said his players are “asked to do more from a mental aspect than they’ve done in the past.” Now the Tigers’ front four dissects the formation — including quarterback depth, running back position, tight end alignment and other factors — before the snap in an effort to diagnose the play and flow to the proper gap.
“Linebackers used to give us calls, but now on the D-line we make the calls ourselves sometimes,” senior defensive tackle Rickey Hatley said. “We look at the formation — the weak side, the strong side, the backfield set, the tight ends coming in, everybody moving around the backfield — and that’s a big change for us, so we’ve got to make the calls and then get set.”
It’s created some hesitation at times as the defensive line attempts to decode “five different things in your mind about what you’re supposed to do,” junior defensive end Charles Harris said.
Former Tigers defensive end Michael Sam, an All-American and co-Southeastern Conference defensive player as a senior in 2014, doesn’t seem to accept the new gap scheme as an explanation for the drop in sacks.
“Plenty of guys under (Kuligowski) had gap integrity and got sacks!!! Two of them were D-Line All-Americans,” Sam posted on Twitter on Wednesday.
Despite making only five tackles with no sacks early in the season, Harris said reverting to the Tigers’ old style of defense isn’t an option — even if it’s been a challenging adjustment.
“Not to say anything bad, but whenever you change something that’s been working so well … it’s frustrating for anybody,” Harris said. “It’s a matter of are you going to adjust to it or are you going to keep fighting it?”
Mentally, Harris said the defensive line understands new scheme and runs it well during practice, but there has been trouble transitioning to the game with adrenaline flowing and crowds roaring.
“We rep it so many times at practice, reading our keys and backfield sets … that it’s starting to actually get natural …,” Harris said. “Once we get the ball rolling, I think it’s going to start clicking for everybody.”
Shipp insists he’s seen improvement from spring practice to fall camp and from the first game to the second.
“Now, is where you want it to be?” Shipp said. “If I looked you in the eye and told you ‘yeah,’ I’d be lying to you. It’s not exactly where you want it to be, but it’s going to get there.”
Cross agreed and believes that with each game the tendency to revert to old habits will diminish.
“The commitment has got to be there …,” Cross said. “No one guy can do it. When we’re all committed, I think we look pretty good. When there’s any type of doubt or hesitation or drawback on what they used to do, it shows up and it’s pretty obvious.”
Finding a way to stop the run on first and second downs, perhaps by cutting down the glaring missed tackles through the first two games, also would provide more pass-rushing opportunities.
“We’ve got to earn the right to rush the passer and, right now, we haven’t defended the run well enough to earn that right to just cut it loose and go,” Cross said.