COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri’s offense has been up to just about every challenge in three blowout victories to start the season.
In fact, the Tigers’ only truly bad moments have come when they almost appeared bored or lulled to sleep against lesser competition. At least, that’s how it seemed with the way Mizzou so utterly dominated opposing offenses the rest of the game, particularly against South Dakota State and Toledo.
Look for things to be a little different Saturday, when Indiana visits Faurot Field for a 3 p.m. kickoff on the SEC Network. The Hoosiers bring a fast-paced offense led by senior quarterback Nate Sudfield, who threw for 347 yards in a 45-42 loss at Bowling Green last week.
"They’re a very potent offensive football team," coach Gary Pinkel says. "That fast-paced offense, quarterback’s playing at a high level, got great receivers, great running back — one of the best in the country."
In fact, junior Tevin Coleman leads the nation with nearly 220 yards per game thanks to a video game-like 9.3 yards per rush. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound tailback already has touchdowns of 73 and 46 yards this season to go along with 38 receiving yards.
Mizzou won’t be able to get away with its mistakes of missed tackles and failing to fill gaps, which led to huge touchdown runs by Toledo and SDSU. But the Tigers’ formidable front seven has also contributed to some impressive defensive play, including 22 tackles for loss in three games.
"First, we want to stop the run so we have to force them to pass," says senior defensive end Markus Golden, who has 3 1/2 of Mizzou’s 12 sacks. "These guys have a good running back. We want to stop the run and we feel like we can get to the quarterback versus anybody in the country."
Pinkel says the linebacking corps of Michael Scherer, Kentrell Brothers and Donavin Newsom may be the most athletic he’s ever had, and they won’t be surprised by the fast pace of Indiana’s offense. Not only do the Tigers face an even faster attack every day in practice, they also saw the Hoosiers a year ago in a 45-28 win on the road.
Indiana’s mediocre defense should provide a considerable margin of error for Mizzou, but Pinkel insists his team can’t view this game as a "tuneup." It’s still a good opportunity for both sides of the ball to shore up weaknesses before SEC play begins next Saturday at South Carolina.
The biggest concerns so far have come in the secondary, where a relatively experienced group has had some difficulties in coverage. Pinkel has said some tentativeness holds them back at times, though two takeaways each by defensive backs Aarion Penton and Duron Singleton show their capability for big plays.
Opponents have converted nine third downs of at least eight yards, including three of 14 yards or more. Nothing is more frustrating for a defense, and it’s easy to blame complacency as a contributing factor.
Mistake-free defense won’t happen with this team or any others, but it’s a little scary to think how good this unit could be if its mental focus were to stay consistent for something close to an entire game. It should be easier to achieve with productive, hard-working senior leaders such as Golden, middle linebacker Scherer and strong safety Braylon Webb.
The Tigers showed they could respond well to adversity last week, when they fell behind for the first time all season on a UCF touchdown that made the score 10-7. Mizzou’s defense held the Knights scoreless for the remaining 42 minutes and even scored the final points of the 38-10 blowout.
"When things get tight, we’ve got to stick together and battle and we did," Scherer said afterward. "People came up with huge plays."
Another day like that should be more than enough to take the Tigers to a comfortable 4-0 against a group of teams still looking for their first FBS win. They’ll need that momentum heading into a showdown next week in Columbia, S.C., where Mizzou will be looking for revenge against by far its toughest test.