Two picks were nice, but spotty pass defense is a concern for Mizzou
COLUMBIA, Mo. — A pair of interceptions and a 38-18 win kept the Missouri secondary from failing its first test, but the Tigers didn’t exactly ace it, either.
Some growing pains were expected for a group that lost first-team All-SEC cornerback E.J. Gaines as well as senior defensive backs Matt White and Randy Ponder. White and Ponder combined for 117 tackles and three interceptions while starting every game in 2013.
Excluding a 75-yard touchdown run off a bad snap on the defense’s first play, it seemed like Missouri might be ahead of schedule when senior safety Duro Singleton’s first career interception highlighted an impressive beginning to Saturday’s season opener. Then South Dakota State’s backup quarterback caught fire and ended up with 239 second-half yards, leaving the Tigers searching for explanations.
"First half, they kind of put me to sleep," cornerback Aarion Penton said after the game. "First quarter, just the run game, they were pounding and pounding it. I didn’t really feel like they were going to put it in the air at all, but then they started. They came out second half and I guess they knew we were asleep."
The Jackrabbits focused especially on Penton, who got beat repeatedly on throws from Zach Lujan to the back shoulder of his receivers. At one point, the sophomore had completed 12 of 13 passes, including a two-point conversion that burned Penton again.
He said it wasn’t until cornerbacks coach Cornell Ford alerted him after that play with less than five minutes left in the third quarter that he realized SDSU starter Austin Sumner had been taken out in the first quarter with an ankle injury. The next possession, Penton took advantage of an overthrow by Lujan to come away with a critical interception in the end zone.
"(Lujan) came in throwing back shoulder, which we didn’t prepare for him at all, so that was a positive for them," Penton said. "But then we started to adjust and started to do what Missouri defenses do, and that worked out for us with takeaways."
The interception might have been a touchdown if Lujan had thrown his pass a yard behind his receiver rather than in front of him, and the Tigers caught another break in the fourth quarter when they recovered a Jason Schneider fumble in the red zone to nullify a 22-yard completion. Then again, those kinds of plays have become a staple of a team with at least one turnover forced in 45 straight games, the longest active streak in the NCAA.
Penton said his attention lapses should provide a valuable lesson, even if it’s one Missouri would have liked the sophomore to have learned during his two starts and significant playing time a year ago. The other defensive backs bear some responsibility as well for failing to get the defense off the field when SDSU converted five third downs in the second half.
"It seemed like they were third-and-3s, third-and-4s, a number of them, and we’ve got to do a better job," coach Gary Pinkel said. "There was a lot of good things on both sides of the ball and I’m pleased with our efforts. But you know me, my job is to get the team better, and we need to get better."
In fact, only one of South Dakota State’s conversions was a third-and-4, when Lujan found Jake Weineke on a quick slant. The rest came on obvious passing downs where the Jackrabbits needed seven yards or more, including a 25-yard completion to Weineke on a third-and-14 in the fourth quarter.
Linebacker Michael Scherer said part of the problem came from Missouri’s inability to react quickly enough to Lujan’s three-step drop, especially on third down. The quick routes effectively countered Mizzou’s pass rush, which finished with three sacks.
"Those guys went out there and played hard," said defensive end Markus Golden, who still managed to bring down Lujan twice. "When (Sumner) left and (Lujan) came in and did his job, he did pretty good."
South Dakota State’s improved execution and new approach could provide a blueprint for how to attack an inexperienced and unproven Tigers secondary. It certainly didn’t change its perception as the weakest link of a defense that last fall allowed 246 passing yards per game, ninth best in the SEC.
If a lack of focus caused problems in the opener, it shouldn’t happen Saturday against Toledo quarterback Phillip Ely, who threw for 337 yards and four touchdowns in his debut, a 54-20 win over New Hampshire. The Tigers know they’ll have plenty of things to correct in practice this week, but they’re confident strong leadership will make sure they learn from their mistakes, just like they eventually did against SDSU.
"There’s no reason to freak out when stuff like that happens," Scherer said. "Things got a little frustrating at times, but we rallied around each other and stuck together."
You can follow Luke Thompson on Twitter @FS_LukeT or email him at email@example.com.