So now, without further ado, let's dive into defense and special teams.(FYI, I’m no coach or anything, so I got a chance to run some of these thoughts past MU’s players and coaches on Monday.) DEFENSIVE OBSERVATIONS
*You probably heard about junior defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson
's stat line from Saturday: nine tackles (1 1/2 for loss), a quarterback hurry and half a sack.
Well, I'm here to tell you that Richardson was even better than his numbers would indicate. After a solid five-tackle outing against Georgia, Richardson stood out on tape this week with his speed and hustle. To me, he looks like a player who sees the NFL within his grasp and is determined to snatch it.
A few plays, in particular, jumped out at me:
*With Arizona State facing a third-and-10 in the first quarter, Richardson racked up a quarterback hurry by executing a perfectclub-rip past the left guard, which flushed quarterback Taylor Kelly from the pocket
*Remember that facemask penalty Richardson received in the fourth quarter, the one that contributed to Arizona State's second-to-last drive? Well, it was bogus. Richardson swiped at the ball anddidn't appear to grab the facemask at all
. He was also called for an offsides penalty in the game, which he was guilty of, but this marks the second straight week I've identified an iffy call against the big defensive tackle.
Anyway, it nullified a terrific play by Richardson, who wasdouble-teamed and somehow spun back
to haul down the scrambling Kelly for a 2-yard loss.
*Finally, the most ridiculous one of all. Facing a third-and-9 in the third quarter, Kelly rolled to his left, laid a stiff arm on hard-hitting linebackerAndrew Wilson and found running back Marion Grice near the sideline for the first down. What did you miss? Richardson diagnosed the play quickly enough to make a play on the ball
. As Roman from “Fast Five” would say – and yes, I'm making fun of that gloriously awful series – are you serious right now?
"I guess he was pass-rushing, he saw the guy roll out and the quarterback roll out with him, and he followed the ball just to make a play," said defensive endShane Ray
, who agreed that it was an impressive display. "What if he would have got an interception?”
If he did, Shane, everybody would be talking about it. As it is, he still deserves credit for his hustle. If he keeps this up in SEC play, it might be hard to lure him back for a third season in Columbia. Richardson is currently second on the team in tackles with 17.Ealy returns to form
You know who else was fantastic last week? Kony Ealy
usurped his position at the top of the depth chart earlier in the week, the sophomore defensive end responded in a big way against the Sun Devils on Saturday. He only finished with four tackles (1 1/2 for loss) and a half sack, but trust me, he was in the backfield all game long - hence the reason he again finds himself at the top of the depth chart.
Ealy told me Monday that his primary focus against the Sun Devils was simply getting off the ball better than he did against Georgia. Do that, his coaches said, and the rest would take care of itself. And it did. Ealy blew past Arizona State's tackles multiple times, but here are some of the most impressive: Check outthis, this, this, this...and this
“Coach kept preaching technique, you know, get off, get off, get off, key the ball, key the ball," Ealy said. "That’s all I did, nothing magical. I just used more of my speed and my power against them and tried to make as many plays as I could to distrupt the quarterback."
Ealy also made his presence felt on two of the game's biggest plays, both of which came on Arizona State's second-to-last drive, when the Sun Devils trailed 24-20 and were only a few yards away from taking the lead. Let's break them down.
*On third-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Ealy made a massive game-saving tackle byrunning through the tight end's block and hauling down a 6-foot-6, 240-pound quarterback
for a 2-yard loss.
*On fourth-and-goal from the 3-yard line, Ealy - who was left unblocked -applied pressure from the backside while Kelly rolled out and threw a pass that was, of course, batted down by safety Kenronte Walker
to preserve the MU lead.(One bonus take from this play: Walker is a crafty son-of-a-gun. After getting beat for a touchdown near the goal line against Georgia the week before, Walker - who was matched up against receiver Kevin Ozier on the play - made sure Ozier could not create enough separation to prevent this from happening. Don't throw at E.J.
I hate to keep harping on it, but guys, there's a reason Missouri coach Gary Pinkel keeps saying things like this about junior cornerback E.J. Gaines
"We keep talking about him every week," Pinkel said. "He's special, a difference-maker at corner…he's got a gift for playing that position."
The kid is really good. A few highlights from Saturday:
*Late in the first quarter, Kelly was facing a third-and-3 when he delivered a pass over the middle to speedy receiverRashad Ross. Ross appeared to catch the ball for a first down, but Gaines never gave up – as they went to the ground, Gaines swiped it out of Ross' grasp with his right hand
. Another pass breakup for E.J.
*On the very next play, Gaines was playing zone when he diagnosed a running play to his side and eluded both a blocking receiver and a pulling left guard tocome up and make a tackle for loss on Cameron Marshall
, who rushed for over 1,000 yards and 18 touchdowns last season.
I was told Monday that Gaines has not allowed a pass to be caught on him in man-to-man coverage this season, which I found interesting because itlooked like Gaines got beat
on Kelly's 34-yard strike to Grice that set up Arizona State's final touchdown. Turns out Grice was a linebacker's responsibility - Gaines just tried to play the ball when he saw Grice slip free down the field.
This is probably as good a place to point out the gameKip Edwards had Saturday. In addition to a fumble recovery, he also had a first-half interception where he broke on the ball in mid-air and showed good ball skills by hauling it in
"The interception, that was a great play," Pinkel said. "He really looked at this game as one of the best he’s played. Had an outstanding game, had a lot of (good) plays."Sam strikes
Defensive end Michael Sam's big sack in the second quarter really showed what happens when defensive coordinator Dave Steckel's aggressive calls pan out. With Arizona State facing a third-and-8 at its own 10-yard line, Steckel dialed up a stunt out of Missouri's third-down "amoeba" look, which features three defensive ends and Richardson lining up in various places
and generally trying to wreak havoc.
Anyway, Sam started the play on two feet in the middle of the defensee, then rushed around the right tackle while Madisonspun inside. Sam was left unblocked, and Kelly was brought down for a big loss
Sometimes the pressure Missouri brings doesn't work out. The Tigers werecaught in a blitz on Arizona State's lone touchdown of the first half, a 33-yard screen pass to running back D.J. Foster
. It marked the second time in two weeks an opponent caught the Tigers in a blitz right before halftime and got a big gain out of it.
There's also this: on Grice's big 34-yard third-down reception in the fourth quarter, I'm pretty sure Steckeldialed up the same stunt
Sam got his sack on in the first half. That's the nature of blitzing, though - you win some, you lose some. By and large, Missouri's defense has looked SEC caliber.Ray logs more snaps
No, your eyes were not fooling you: Kansas City native and Bishop Miege graduate Shane Ray
played more on Saturday than he had in the past.
“I definitely played a lot more," Ray said. “In our Thursday meetings, Coach Kul (Kuligowski) said if we want to play more, we’ve got to start making plays and being accountable doing our assignments.”
Ray thinks he earned his extra snaps in practice, where he focused on proving he knew his assignments. He also said he thinks he made the most of his snaps in both the Georgia and Arizona State games and received good feedback from Kuligowski, his D-line coach.
“Overall, I did a pretty good job,” Ray said. “But he didn’t want me to get complacent. There's no complacency in the D-line room. It’s just a constant grind.”Brothers getting work
With fourth linebacker Donovan Bonner getting the nod at weakside linebacker in Zaviar Gooden's absence Saturday I noticed that Kentrell Brothers
got some work with the first team in Missouri's nickel package.
“Kentrell played a little bit the first week in the nickel," Bonner said. "I was at sam (linebacker), he was at will (linebacker). He’s learning mike (linebacker), too, so Kentrell is learning all three positions. Coach Steck likes to have his linebackers learn all three positions, so the faster he does that, (the faster) he can help our team."SPECIAL TEAMS OBSERVATIONS
*We all know the snaps and holds need to improve, particularly on field goals, as this still of Pinkel
- taken after one of three missed field goals - would attest. I'm sure the Tigers are working hard to improve this aspect of the game.
*Marcus Murphy is pretty explosive, but he's also started ducking and placing his hand on the ground to regain his balance on punt returns. That's a Devin Hester
move, by the way.
*Remember Gaines' 44-yard punt return in the first half? The one where Murphy fielded the punt, flipped Gaines the ball andwatched him race to the other sideline and back for a huge gain? Well, Gaines actually started the play in the middle of the field, about 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, then raced back to receive the flip from Murphy.