On the first play of the season for Missouri’s defense, South Dakota State tailback Zach Zenner burst through the heart of the Tigers’ defense for a 75-yard touchdown run.
“We weren’t in our gaps that first play, and that’s what happens,” sophomore linebacker Michael Scherer said. “Especially on a blitz, when everybody’s manned up, people aren’t necessarily looking at the ball. They’re looking at their man, and things like that can happen.”
Worries about that play were largely abated by No. 20 Missouri’s stingy run defense the rest of the way in a 38-18 win against the Jackrabbits, who managed only 44 yards on 31 carries after Zenner’s long touchdown.
When similar problems cropped up against Toledo, though, concern started to rise about the Tigers’ inability to avoid big plays in the run game.
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“Usually, if you see a big-gaining play, there’s three guys on defense that made some sort of mistake that led to that,” Missouri defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said.
No defense will ever eliminate every big play from every game, but the Tigers know they need to do a better job limiting runs of more than 15 yards by maintaining better gap discipline.
“It’s football,” senior defensive end Markus Golden said. “Those guys work hard, too, so they’re going to make some plays, but we’ve just got to do our job. … We’ve just got to get better. We’ve got to watch the film and get better.”
Toledo gashed Missouri, 2-0, for four runs of at least 18 yards, including Kareem Hunt’s 38-yard first-quarter touchdown and another 45-yard scamper to the Tigers’ 1-yard line.
Missouri was particularly vulnerable against cutback runs, but Scherer believes that is correctable and already saw some positive strides. He said communication, which led to breakdowns against South Dakota State, was much better against Toledo.
“What it comes down to with big plays like that, it’s coming back to our fundamentals,” sophomore defensive end Shane Ray said. “It’s coming back to being in our gaps. We’re a gap defense. If somebody’s not in the right place, it creates seams in the defense. If we buckle down and continue to play aggressive and fast like we’ve been playing, but play within our scheme that coach Stec (defensive coordinator Dave Steckel) gives us, we’ll be far more successful.”
That certainly is part of the equation, but the Tigers also have whiffed on too many tackles, especially downfield.
“They hit on a couple plays, very similar calls, and that’s where your safeties have got to make the plays,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “That’s where you want the 16-yard gain, not the 45-yard gain, so we’ve got to improve on that and I think we’re very capable.”
In some ways, Missouri is going back to the drawing board to fix the problem.
“When you play really talented people, you’ve got to be able to tackle in space,” Tigers cornerbacks coach Cornell Ford said. “Hopefully, you don’t let them get to a point where they’re in that much space and you’ve got to make a tackle like that, but, good tacklers, that’s what they do. We’ve got to do a better job. I’ve got to do a better job coaching it, and our players have got to do a better job executing it.”