COLUMBIA, MO. — The day after the Missouri football team returned home from its stunning season-opening loss at Wyoming, defensive coordinator Ryan Walters summoned his players to a meeting room at Memorial Stadium.
Defensive linemen, linebackers and members of the secondary arrived with their heads down, wounds still fresh from a 37-31 loss that was littered with missed tackles, blown assignments and questioned identity.
A tail chewing was expected.
Walters called an audible.
“Honestly, it wasn’t a freak-out thing, or anything like that,” defensive tackle Jordan Elliott said. “Coach Walters brought us all together. He told us, straight up, who we are and what we are. That game was a bad showcase. But he never once doubted us. He never doubted who we are as a defense. Because he saw it all spring and all fall camp. He came in there and told us, be who we are. We embraced that. That boosted our confidence.”
As he shared on Saturday night the story of the meeting that happened five weeks ago Sunday, Elliott gestured to the wall of the media room. Walter’s message came in the room on the other side. The response has led to a defense as solid as the barrier in between.
One of the biggest questions Tigers coach Barry Odom has heard since his transition to head coach has been a fair one that finally seems to have found its answer. Why haven’t Odom’s Tigers played the kind of defense that earned him his stripes as a star defensive coordinator?
Odom misfired on a defensive coordinator hire before turning to Walters. An attempt to turn an ears-pinned-back defensive line into a read-and-react unit flopped. Former offensive coordinator Josh Heupel’s offense left defenders gassed. Fundamentals were too fuzzy at times. Bye weeks said bye to progress.
The past four games present a new reality.
A defensive renaissance is blooming in CoMo, and it could not have come at a more crucial time.
Mizzou’s star quarterback, Kelly Bryant, is a question mark moving forward until we find out more about the left knee that suffered a trifecta cheap shot (low and late, with a twist) from Troy defensive tackle Travis Sailo in Mizzou’s 42-10 win on Saturday at Faurot Field.
Whether Bryant is back out there soon, later, or never, now is the time for this team to be able to lean on its defense.
Those still caught up on what went wrong at Wyoming have missed much that has gone right since.
Saturday’s win was never going to teach us much about Mizzou’s offense. Troy’s defense is a disaster, spottier than the crowd at Memorial Stadium on a rainy day. What the Sun Belt Conference Trojans did offer was a spread offense featuring a senior quarterback that had averaged 40.5 points per game this season. This was a test, and the Tigers’ defense passed with flying colors — after one snafu.
The bye-week bugaboo — Odom’s teams were without a win in three chances entering this one — stirred again after Troy marched 75 yards in a 3½-minute touchdown drive that got easier as it progressed.
The Trojans completed three third-down conversions during the drive.
Missouri stopped the seven third-down conversions that followed the rest of the half.
Here’s what happened on those third-down attempts: Defensive tackle Kobie Whiteside spoiled one with a quarterback sack. Linebacker Cale Garrett, in what might have been his best game as a Tiger — and that’s saying something — turned a completed pass into a loss of 5 yards. A jumpy Troy team committed a false start. Safety Khalil Oliver leveled a receiver with a shoulder to the chest, jarring the football free while avoiding a targeting penalty. Garrett tipped a pass to himself, corralled it and rumbled to the 1-yard line. Garrett picked off another pass and didn’t stop until he had scored. The final two unsuccessful Troy third downs of the half came on an incomplete pass and a rush of 1 yard, on third-and-3.
Troy didn’t reach the red zone in the first half after its lone touchdown. It averaged 2 yards per rush and 3½ per pass attempt entering halftime. This was a clinic, against an opponent that knows how to score.
Attempts at meaningful evaluation must stop there, considering the lopsided nature of a 42-7 first half and the physicality that encouraged both coaches to start pulling key players who were not already hurt.
Instead, zoom out and look at a defensive body of work in wins against West Virginia, Southeast Missouri State, South Carolina and Troy. These four teams combined to score 31 points against the Tigers. Mizzou’s defense has scored 35 in this stretch.
Odom credited Walters and his defensive coaches, sharing that this week included the added adversity of the death of defensive line coach Brick Haley’s brother.
“The things they have done over the last four weeks on putting our guys in position to play fast, and our kids understanding what to do, I’ve admired what they’ve done,” Odom said. “They’ve been great teachers.”
After intercepting 10 passes last season, Mizzou has seven through five games. The Tigers have allowed 21 third-down conversions — on 79 attempts. Tougher opponents, like a homecoming date with Ole Miss, are coming. But this defense is getting tougher as it goes.
Quotes from Bryant’s coach and his teammates were positive Saturday, but optimism and more in-depth medical reports don’t always go hand in hand.
Even if the quarterback is back soon, he will be playing on a knee that took an ugly twist thanks to a defender’s unnecessary hook.
Signs are building that this team’s defense might be its biggest star.
No better time to prove it than now.