Monday takeaway: Bledsoe, Gillespie spark defensive turnaround
The first of several occasions when it looked as if South Carolina might seize the momentum against Missouri Saturday — only for the Tigers make enough plays to avoid allowing one negative play to turn into an avalanche of mistakes, bucking a recent trend in the series — came in the first quarter. A dysfunctional Tiger possession ended in a Tyler Badie fumble. South Carolina, trailing 7-0, took over possession on the Missouri 23-yard line.
In most football games, and especially in Missouri’s losses under head coach Barry Odom, such a turnover might have led to points for the opposition and could have sparked a scoring run. In Missouri’s season-opening loss to Wyoming, for instance, the Tigers allowed an 11-play, 80-yard touchdown drive following a Kelly Bryant interception on the first drive of the third quarter, which extended Wyoming’s lead to 17 points.
Saturday, however, Missouri stymied South Carolina and kept the momentum on its side. The Tigers have their starting high safeties, Joshuah Bledsoe and Tyree Gillespie, to thank.
On first down, Bledsoe knifed through the line of scrimmage and tackled dual-threat quarterback Dakereon Joyner for a loss of three yards. The following play, it was Gillespie’s turn, as he came free on a blitz and sacked Joyner for a loss of six, pushing South Carolina to the edge of placekicker Parker White’s range. On third down, true freshman quarterback Ryan Hilinski returned to the game and threw for Bryan Edwards in the end zone, but Gillespie got his hand on the ball and batted it away.
Sure enough, White missed a 50-yard field goal and Missouri maintained its seven-point lead. The series wouldn’t make any headlines, not in a game in which the Tiger defense scored two touchdowns, but it was the type of stand that Missouri simply hasn’t made in losses to South Carolina the past three seasons. Missouri went on to beat the Gamecocks for the first time since 2015, 34-14.
The series also illustrated how important Bledsoe and Gillespie can be to the Missouri defense. Before the season, both Odom and defensive coordinator Ryan Walters went so far as to say the pair of juniors could be the best safety tandem they had ever coached. In the team’s dominant defensive outings the past three games, they have shown why. Saturday, Bledsoe finished with five tackles and a pass breakup. Gillespie added two breakups to his sack.
“When they’re going, we’re going,” fellow safety Ronnell Perkins said. “I seen them make some crazy plays. They can do everything They can cover, they can hit. They’re just good at everything.”
Missouri’s defense as a whole has looked like a completely different unit since the Wyoming loss. The Tigers have given up just 86 combined rushing yards in the past three games after allowing 297 yards rushing to the Cowboys. Saturday, South Carolina mustered just 16 yards on the ground, the fewest by a Missouri opponent in a decade. The Tigers have allowed 178.7 total yards per game and 21 combined points during the past three contests — and seven of those points Saturday came after South Carolina began a drive on the Missouri one-yard line.
While the turnaround has been a team effort, perhaps no individuals have looked more improved than Bledsoe and Gillespie. The pair combined to miss four tackles against Wyoming. Each also allowed a completion in coverage that went for a Wyoming first down. Sean Chambers’ devastating stiff arm of Bledsoe on Chambers’ 75-yard touchdown run served as the enduring image of the upset.
“Everything that happened was really on us,” Bledsoe said after the game. “We were just hitting ourselves in the foot. We just gotta do a lot better communicating when we out there. That’s really all it is.”
In the three games since, Bledsoe and Gillespie have not just improved, they’ve looked like the dynamic tandem Odom and Walters promised during the preseason. Their versatility, especially, has been on display, with both players making plays in run support, in coverage and as blitzers.
Gillespie has not missed a tackle since the season-opener, when he missed three. Bledsoe has missed just one in the past three games. Each player also has three pass breakups during that span, including a thunderous hit by Gillespie against Southeast Missouri that knocked Redhawks receiver Christian Wilkerson out of the game. Bledsoe could have had at least one interception against West Virginia in Week Two had he been able to hold onto the ball. And Saturday, blitzes led to Gillespie’s sack and Bledsoe’s tackle for loss on Missouri’s pivotal first-quarter defensive stop.
“I think they’ve played so much better than we saw game one,” Odom said. “... Those guys, they’ve got skill and understanding of the defense and the structure of what we’re trying to do. They’re versatile in what we’re asking them to do. We just gotta get them to continue to play and play at a higher level.”
Bledsoe described his and Gillespie’s improved play the past three weeks as simply a reflection of their practice habits.Perkins credited Bledsoe and Gillespie for taking to heart Walters’ coaching, which Odom described as “really, really aggressive,” in the practices following the Wyoming loss.
“They just took the coaching,” Perkins said. “Coach Walters is a great coach. They took the coaching from coach Walters. It wasn’t easy, but as a player, you gotta take it, and they responded.”
But while the coaching may have been aggressive, teammates also say Bledsoe and Gillespie haven’t made any drastic changes in how they play the position since Week One. The biggest difference, senior safety Khalil Oliver said, has actually been relaxing a bit on the field. Oliver said Bledsoe and Gillespie seemed overeager to make plays in Week One, and as a result, they ran themselves out of position at times.
“I think the whole defense as a whole has kind of just relaxed and realized that your plays are going to come, and you don’t need to be an all star, make somebody else’s play,” Oliver said. “You just need to be in the right place and trust your teammates that they’re going to do what needs to be done.”
Saturday served as a statement for the Missouri defense. The group entered the game with one poor performance and two strong outings on their ledger, but the games against West Virginia and SEMO were largely dismissed due to the level of competition. But the Tigers suffocated a South Carolina offense that put up 459 total yards against Alabama, holding the Gamecocks to 271 yards and 11 first downs (with 75 of those yards coming on one play). Now, two weeks after surrendering 37 points to Wyoming, Missouri ranks No. 6 nationally in total defense.
As they proved during a momentous defensive stand in the first quarter Saturday, Bledsoe and Gillespie have been a major reason for the turnaround.
“I anticipated us having a much better performance out of those two,” Odom said. “We count on them being the way that they’ve played the past couple weeks. And now we need more. The next challenge is to continue to get better.”