During last Saturday’s Mizzou game against Murray State, some people saw what looked to be a typical blowout of an FCS team by an FBS powerhouse. Unfortunately, what I saw should be of some concern for Mizzou fans. Specifically, I saw a first quarter where Mizzou trailed Murray State 14-13, and their defense looked rather ordinary.
Last season, the defense was Missouri’s strongest unit, led by Jets first round draft pick Sheldon Richardson. But the departure of Richardson, Zaviar Gooden, and three defensive other starters raised some question marks about this unit in 2013. Even last season, there was a noticeable difference in the when Richardson was on the field disrupting the offense and when he was not on the field (see: Orangemen, Syracuse).
I wrote last week that I was looking for domination by the first team defense, but that was not what we saw in the first quarter. Well, the fourteen-point first quarter, which would have been seventeen if not for a missed field goal, definitely cause some concern. It wasn’t just the points, but the relative ease it seemed with which Murray State move the ball up the field. On Murray State’s second touchdown play, a QB throw back to Mikael Miller, defensive end Kony Ealy got juked out of his cleats by Miller. It just looked ugly.
Now on a weekend where 8 FCS teams upset FBS teams, things easily could have been much worse. One questionable quarter definitely does not mean that the Missouri defense will be bad all season. The defense did a good job clamping down on Murray State for the remaining three quarters. However, stopping Murray State is what a team like Missouri is supposed to do, so it’s not particularly impressive.
So to me, it’s the defense that needs to rise to the challenge against Toledo on Saturday afternoon. Toledo dropped it’s open 24-6 to a Florida team that is a basically all defense, with not much of an offense to speak of. I actually expect the Mizzou offense to have it’s way with Toledo. The question will be if the defense can step up and put the clamps on them as well.
For Mizzou to be successful against Toledo and over the course of the regular season, it needs to see Ealy and senior
defensive end Michael Sam step up and be dominant both against the run, and disruptive rushing the passer. Sam has shown flashes of pass rush ability through his first three seasons as a Tiger, and needs to step up on a consistent basis. Ealy is an NFL prospect with a lot of raw talent. Now it’s time for him to put everything together and take a leap forward.
If Sam and Ealy play at a high level, this Missouri defense could be formidable. If they are just average, Mizzou may get beat up by some of the better offenses in the SEC. While the first quarter performance vs Murray State could be worrisome, it may also just be a case of first game jitters. The Toledo game gives them another chance to show what they’ve got.