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Mizzou

Mizzou defense won't overlook Toledo

No. 6: Cornerback E.J. Gaines

E.J. Gaines (31) is perhaps the Mizzou defense’s most proven playmaker, and the Tigers will need more game-changing plays against potent SEC offenses. (Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com)

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COLUMBIA, Mo. • Which Missouri defense shows up for today’s visit from upset specialist Toledo? Will it be the defense that let Murray State march undeterred to 14 first-quarter points last week? Will it be the defense that built a brick wall at the line of scrimmage the rest of the night?

“The one that showed up the rest of the night,” cornerback E.J. Gaines said. “Definitely.”

Gaines played a major role in shifting the momentum last Saturday in Mizzou’s 58-14 victory — a game the Racers of the Football Championship Subdivision led 14-13 into the second quarter. In what should have been Missouri’s most lopsided mismatch of the season, Murray State opened with drives of 59, 53 and 83 yards, ripping off runs of 23, 12 and 17 yards, plus passes of 17, 34 and 17 yards — good for 11 first downs in the game’s first 11 minutes.

But sparked by Gaines’ diving interception in the second quarter, the Tigers (1-0) held Murray State scoreless the rest of the game, limiting the no-huddle spread attack to just 102 yards over the final 12 possessions.

Coming into the game, Missouri’s coaching staff had only limited footage of Murray State quarterback Maikhail Miller, who transferred from Mississippi in late July and surprised Mizzou with some effective quarterback draws through wide alleys down the middle of the defense.

After the first quarter, defensive coordinator Dave Steckel tinkered with some adjustments, calling for more twists along the front four to jumble Murray State’s blocking schemes. From there, the Tigers dominated the line of scrimmage and tallied three sacks, 10 tackles for loss and three interceptions.

Now, for their encore.

Toledo (0-1), fresh off a 24-6 loss at Florida, where the Rockets failed to score a touchdown for the first time since a season-opening loss to Arizona in 2010, brings a similar offense to Columbia. The Tigers can expect to see another fast-paced, no-huddle spread attack — but with more talented and seasoned personnel, led by senior quarterback Terrance Owens and senior tailback David Fluellen, whose 124.8 rushing yards per game ranked eighth nationally last year.

“I think the tailback’s got NFL skill,” Steckel said. “He’s got great hands, great quickness. The quarterback’s very athletic. He’s a lefty. He’s got a very strong arm. They’re very talented. … I think their O-line is athletic, but … they seem like they’ve got a mean, nasty streak, which I like.”

In Toledo’s first game against a Southeastern Conference team, Owens struggled at The Swamp, completing only 17 of 38 passes for 155 yards. The Rockets picked up only one first down against the Gators.

“It’s the tightest windows he’s had to throw the ball through since he’s been here,” Toledo coach Matt Campbell said. “As we go forward, we’re not going to see that kind of coverage the rest of the year.”

Don’t mistake Campbell’s comment as a jab at a Missouri staff he knows well, notably safeties coach Alex Grinch, who was Campbell’s college teammate on three Division III national championship teams at Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio.

Gary Pinkel’s staff is especially familiar with Campbell’s program. Pinkel is the winningest coach in Toledo history, leading the Rockets to 73 wins from 1991-2000. His teams, which included four of his current Mizzou assistants, helped establish Toledo’s reputation for knocking down teams from the major conferences, starting with a 1992 upset of Purdue. Since 2000, the Rockets have won 10 games against teams that now reside in the American Athletic Conference (Cincinnati), Big Ten (Penn State, Minnesota, Michigan, Purdue), Pac-12 (Colorado), Big 12 (Kansas, Iowa State) and ACC (Pittsburgh).

Steckel, who coached Toledo’s defensive line from 1992-95, never bought into the idea that Toledo —or any underdog team from the Mid-American Conference — approached those games differently from other teams.

“I’d like to think all coaches in the world think they’re going to win,” he said. “I’ve never heard of a coach before say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a game Saturday. Let’s just try.’ I know I haven’t. I think I’m going to beat everybody. When I was at Toledo I thought that way. When I was at Division III and we played Joe Schmoe I thought that way. If you’re a competitor you think you’re going to win every time.

“I play checkers against my wife and I’m expecting to kick her butt. That’s just human nature.”

Human nature might cause the Tigers to overlook today’s opponent — the Rockets are 17-point underdogs — but Pinkel’s coaches, with their Toledo pedigree, know better.

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