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Notebook: Base defense gets it done

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Following Missouri’s season-opening upset at the hands of Wyoming, in which the Cowboys shredded the Tiger defense for 297 yards rushing, players and coaches insisted the scheme wasn’t to blame. Poor tackling and execution had more to do with the performance, they said, than the new 4-2-5 defensive scheme, a slight tweak from head coach Barry Odom’s first three seasons.

Missouri proved itself right during Saturday’s win over West Virginia. In a sense, the Tiger defense looked like a completely different unit, dominating the Mountaineer offensive front, allowing only 32 rushing yards on 30 carries, recording 13 tackles for loss and three sacks and generating three turnovers. But at least by formation, the defense looked exactly the same as in the opener. Missouri played nearly every snap Saturday with four down linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs on the field.

Defensive coordinator Ryan Walters (left) said he won't overreact to Saturday's success just like he didn't overreact to the team's Week One loss.
Defensive coordinator Ryan Walters (left) said he won't overreact to Saturday's success just like he didn't overreact to the team's Week One loss. (Mikala Compton)

Senior Khalil Oliver, who splits time with fellow senior Ronnell Perkins at the new position in the defense — a hybrid between a safety and an outside linebacker — said the defense’s success Saturday illustrated the positives of the new alignment.

“We can do a little bit of everything from it,” Oliver said. “We don’t really have to change much from a personnel standpoint. … I think coach Walters was just getting comfortable, seeing that we didn’t need to turn into one of our sub-packages.”

In years past, Missouri would often swap its base defense on third downs, opting instead for a nickel or dime alignment. A nickel package features five defensive backs — usually three cornerbacks and two safeties — and dime features six. Perkins said the 4-2-5 alignment works on third downs because he and Oliver, safeties by trade, can cover wide receivers, tight ends or running backs. West Virginia converted seven of 16 third downs into first downs, with two of those conversions coming against Missouri’s reserves late in the fourth quarter.

“Usually, like the years I’ve been here on third downs, we got to like five DB’s, six DB’s on the field every time,” Perkins said. “But now we got five DB’s on the field every down, so it’s no reason to bring extra DB’s on the field when we already got five DB’s out there that can cover.”

After Saturday’s game, Odom said Missouri stuck to its base defense because West Virginia showed “vanilla” offensive alignments in its season-opening game against James Madison, but that the Tigers would have been ready with other packages had the Mountaineers shown any new formations. Perkins also noted another reason the defense was prepared to stick to its base formation Saturday: Big 12 offenses often play at a high tempo, and the inherent flexibility of the 4-2-5 scheme means Missouri doesn’t have to substitute players as often. Perkins said that was an issue in the team’s 2017 Texas Bowl loss to Texas and last season’s loss to Oklahoma State in the Liberty Bowl. Oliver added that any time a defense changes formations, the chances of confusion and a missed assignment increase, so the more snaps Missouri can spend in its base defense, the better.

“Playing previous Big 12 teams, like Texas, Oklahoma State, they move their offense real fast,” Perkins explained. “Usually we try to sub in and out, but they move their offense so fast that they’ll catch us off guard. But we didn’t get caught off guard this game because we were ready, we didn’t have nobody running on and off the field, we were in our base defense the whole time.”

Even on the heels of a successful outing, Missouri’s defensive players and coordinator have not forgotten about the season-opener. Perkins said the players don’t still bring up the loss to Wyoming, but they don’t need to; it’s in the back of everyone’s mind, proof of what can happen if the team doesn’t execute. Walters said he’s approaching this week of practice the same way he did following the loss.

“Like I said last week, I didn’t want to overreact to one outing and trust what I’ve been seeing since the spring time,” he said. “Same thing, I don’t want to overreact to one outing Saturday. We still gotta work and approach every day to get better.”

Bryant healthy, practicing fully

Missouri’s decision to remove quarterback Kelly Bryant from Saturday’s game before the rest of the first-string offense sparked a bit of concern. The Tigers led 31-0 at the time, but Bryant, who took a few hard hits during the course of the game, went to the locker room prior to the final few series and did not meet with the media after the game.

Missouri cited overheating for Bryant’s early exit. Tuesday, after practicing fully, Bryant assured reporters that he is healthy.

“It was just like a weird feeling,” he said of Saturday. “Just wanted to check to make sure everything was good. I really can’t describe it, but everything checked out good. … It’s just one of those, not really sure what was going on, just wanted to take extra precaution.”

Missouri should also get starting cornerback Jarvis Ware back in the lineup this week after he missed Saturday’s game due to an ankle injury. Odom said Ware has been fully cleared to return to practice. However, the Tigers will instead be without a different defensive back. Odom said redshirt freshman Chris Mills suffered a knee injury Saturday that will keep him out “indefinitely.”

“Hate it, because he was making so much progress,” Odom said of Mills’ injury. “He got hurt on a special teams play late, and he'll be out for some time."

Missouri will likely also be without defensive end Trajan Jeffcoat for another week. The sophomore is still recovering from an elbow injury suffered during practice on Aug. 2. Odom said Jeffcoat is “getting really, really close” to returning.

“It's in a position where you know, could he go this week? Maybe,” Odom said. “But we're not we're not really into maybes when it comes to the the medical decisions. We will get a little bit more of a clearer picture on Thursday.”

Secondary gets a Spark

Cornerback Adam Sparks saw his first meaningful action at cornerback in 10 months Saturday.
Cornerback Adam Sparks saw his first meaningful action at cornerback in 10 months Saturday. (Jordan Kodner)

Due to Ware’s absence Saturday, junior Adam Sparks saw his first action in more than 10 months at cornerback. Sparks did not disappoint, logging four tackles — 2.5 of which went for a loss — and a pass break-up. Sparks missed the final five games of last season with a stress fracture in his lower leg, and Tuesday, his appreciation for the chance to return to action was visible.

“Like I told my teammates, being back out there on the field with them is like a true dream come true,” he said. “Injuries bring people down, so when you finally get back out there it’s like I’m comfortable with my team.”

Also visible during the game was Sparks’ tackling ability. Sparks is the smallest of Missouri’s cornerbacks, listed (perhaps generously) as 6 foot, 180 pounds, but he exhibited sure tackling ability against West Virginia. Two-and-a-half of his four tackles occured behind the line of scrimmage.

“He's got a knack for it, not afraid to put his face in there,” Odom said. “And I'm proud that that he likes to play that way."

Odom pointed out that Sparks’ return adds not only depth but experience at the cornerback position. Even as Ware returns to the field, look for Sparks to continue to see regular playing time.

“He's played in some meaningful games for us, meaningful snaps,” Odom said. “So it's good to see him back, you know, after that injury that he had last year, and he's going to continue to get better as we get him into the game. And he's earned that opportunity. So he'll keep playing and hopefully keep playing well."

Downing emerges as third back

The past two seasons, Missouri has not been afraid to split reps between its running backs, utilizing three players almost evenly. In 2017, it was Ish Witter, Damarea Crockett and Larry Rountree III. Last season, Witter was replaced by true freshman Tyler Badie.

Due to Crockett's departure for the NFL, there was some question as to who, if anyone, would serve as Missouri's third tailback this season. Might it be sophomore Simi Bakare, who worked his way into a bit of playing time late last season, or true freshman Anthony Watkins? Or, as was the case in Week One against Wyoming, would Rountree and Badie take every meaningful snap.

Midway through the second quarter Saturday, we got our answer: none of the above. Senior Dawson Downing entered the game for a series and carried the ball five times for 28 yards. He finished the game with 10 carries for 59 yards.

Odom said Downing, a former walk-on, could see his role expand further moving forward. Odom said the team can’t expect to get through a season with just two tailbacks.

“We're going to continue to grow his role,” Odom said. “Every player on the roster, if they continue to show value and give us an opportunity to step in and help us win a game, then they're going to play, and Dawson's done a great job. … He’s a tough player and got a lot of respect in our locker room."

To underscore Odom’s point about Downing’s popularity within the locker room, Rountree was particularly excited to discuss his contribution after the game Saturday. He confirmed that Downing is currently third on the running back depth chart while offering up one of the day’s more colorful sound bytes.

“Dawson’s been a dog,” Rountree said. “He's been a dog. He's just been in a cage. Literally, when he gets out there, Dawson's gonna go hard. Every play he's gonna go hard. ... I was so happy to see him out there. He's third now, so that's good."