Missouri’s secondary has risen to meet plenty of challenges this season.
Consider the job senior cornerback E.J. Gaines did against Texas A&M sophomore wide receiver Mike Evans on Saturday.
Gaines helped the Tigers secure a 28-21 victory against the Aggies — and the accompanying SEC East crown — by limiting Evans to season worsts for catches (four) and yards (8).
“We tried to roll (Gaines) into Mike a lot,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “Mike is such a great player, you don’t get a good feel for it until you see the stats after the game. … E.J. did a great job of controlling, the best he could, in terms of production, a great player. So, (we’re) very proud of E.J. for that.”
It was a dominant performance, and Gaines’ shut-down performance against Evans, a talented pass catcher likely headed for the NFL eventually, ranks among the toughest tasks and biggest feats for the Tigers’ secondary this season.
Statistically, Missouri ranks last in the SEC in passing yards allowed, giving up 266.3 per game, but that figure is misleading.
Opponents threw 499 times against the Tigers, 11-1 and ranked fifth. Only two other SEC teams, Auburn (422) and Vanderbilt (400), were in the same zip code in terms of passes faced.
Missouri led the SEC with 18 interceptions and finished the regular season tied for first with Alabama in passing yards allowed per attempt at 6.4, which helped MU rank third in the conference in defensive passing efficiency at 119.4.
Of course, much of that won’t matter when Missouri lines up against run-heavy Auburn in the SEC title game at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
Missouri’s secondary will face a new challenge — run support — against Auburn, which has the nation’s fifth-most prolific rushing attack.
“They definitely like to bounce the ball outside,” Gaines said. “They’ve got fast guys over there, so just coming up and helping in the run game is a big thing. But we can’t go to sleep out there or they’ll definitely hit us with some deep balls if we do.”
Fortunately, the concept isn’t exactly foreign for Missouri’s secondary. Safety Braylon Webb is second on the team in tackles with 73, Gaines has 59, and senior safety Matt White has 52. Many of those stops have come against the run.
“Built into every coverage, there’s a support factor,” Missouri defensive coordinator Dave Steckel said. “We call it a force factor. It depends on what the coverage is who’s got support and who has to be there. … Sometimes the corners support, sometimes the linebackers support, sometimes the safeties support. We ask everybody to support at certain times, but the secondary will have to be involved more in run support this week, yes.”
Gaines isn’t worried. It’s nothing new, so he’s aiming for another shutdown effort but in a totally different way.
“Every game, we definitely have to come up and make plays in the run game,” Gaines said. “That’s something that our coaches expect of us, so it’s nothing different this week. They can run the football, so it’s going to be a bigger challenge, but I feel like we’re definitely up for the challenge.”