University of Missouri

After a bad start at Wyoming, Mizzou’s defense is peaking with South Carolina on deck

Missouri’s defense is playing its best with South Carolina coming to town for the Tigers’ SEC opener Saturday.

Last weekend, Mizzou made a highlight reel of big hits in a 50-0 victory over Southeast Missouri State, as Missouri’s physicality was too much for the Redhawks to match. MU’s defense has held opponents to just one touchdown over the past eight quarters.

In the first quarter, Missouri defensive end Jordan Elliott hit Redhawks quarterback Daniel Santacaterina right after he threw a pass. Santacaterina lingered on the ground for a few minutes before heading to the sideline. Elliott stared at Santacaterina, thinking he just knocked the starting quarterback out of the game.

“I probably should have gotten a targeting on that,” Elliott said. “He was hurting on that ground.”

No flags were thrown at Elliott and Southeast Missouri punted, but the message was sent by Elliott. Throughout the rest of the game, Santacaterina would occasionally react in the pocket as if he was under pressure when MU had yet to attack the pocket. After having 13 tackles-for-loss against West Virginia, MU kept the pressure up against the Redhawks, finishing the game with eight.

Elliott said Santacaterina stopped making a three-stop drop after his hit and instead would just pedal backwards, telling him that he was officially in the opposing quarterback’s head.

“That’s a mental thing,” Elliott said. “If an (offensive lineman) just smashed me, I have a second thought to adjust to that. You don’t want to get killed the whole game.

“It’s a motivating factor,” he added. “When you’re hitting the quarterback like that it’s like taking their will.”

Elliott ended up setting the bar for the rest of the defense, as more big hits followed. Late in the first half, Santacaterina targeted wideout Kristian Wilkerson for a pass. But MU linebacker Nick Bolton hit Wilkerson so hard, the ball fell out of the wideout’s hands and put Wilkerson flat on his back.

Earlier on the same drive, Southeast Missouri was forced to punt but got a new set of downs after MU backup tailback Jerney Jones was called for roughing Redhawks punter Jake Reynolds.

Bolton said MU’s physicality has been a point of emphasis since the Tigers’ 37-31 loss at Wyoming on Aug. 31. In that game, MU came off as the softer team and tried to do too much when things were going wrong. Against West Virginia, MU was a lot more relaxed and was successful at limiting the Mountaineers’ scoring opportunities by having each player stay within his role. Saturday’s win was more of the same.

“Not trying to be Superman,” Bolton said of the unit’s mindset.

After a strong opening drive by MU’s offense that culminated with a 3-yard touchdown by Larry Rountree, senior linebacker Cale Garrett extended Missouri’s lead 58 seconds later.

Garrett picked off Santacaterina’s second pass of the game and returned it 27 yards for a touchdown that put MU up 14-0. Had Garrett missed the pass, MU had cornerback Christian Holmes and safety Josh Bledsoe behind him.

“I think we had it covered,” Garrett joked.

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Despite outscoring its last two opponents 88-7, Missouri coach Barry Odom gave his team a shorter honeymoon after Saturday’s win compared to most games. Odom usually has players enjoy a win for 24 hours before shifting focus to the next game. On Saturday, he told his players they got 15 minutes to enjoy the win before shifting its focus to South Carolina.

Odom has never beaten South Carolina in his three years as MU’s head coach and blew a late lead in 2018 to the Gamecocks after a botched coverage in the final minute of the game.

Next Saturday will measure how far the defense has come.

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Alex Schiffer has been covering the Missouri Tigers for The Star since October 2017. He came in second place for magazine-length feature writing by the U.S. Basketball Writer’s Association in 2018 and graduated from Mizzou in 2017.