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Is Mizzou’s defensive turnaround legit?

Blake Baker’s unit is leading the way for the Tigers.

Georgia v Missouri Photo by Jay Biggerstaff/Getty Images

If you’ve ever cheered for a contending baseball team with a bad bullpen, you know the feeling of existential dread as your team attempts to hold a narrow lead late in the game. I’m not sure there’s a worse feeling as a sports fan.

If there is, though, it’s watching the opposition consistently run for five yards against your favorite football team’s defense. It’s a slow burn as the opposition matriculates the ball down the field. Every. Single. Week. There is no fix for such a problem. Not in-season, at least. The scheme is at fault, sure, but it’s also a personnel issue and, frankly, a talent issue.

This was the experience we all had watching the 2021 Missouri Tigers.

The easiest way for me to describe the Tigers’ defensive struggles last season would be to put it this way: Missouri’s opponents gained, on average, 6.4 yards per play. That was the best “per play” average against Missouri’s defense in at least the last 20 years. There were only two other instances in which Missouri gave up more than six yards per play (2016, 2020).

Status quo was not going to be possible for this unit. Not coming off of that historically poor performance. Something - heck, many things - had to change.

Change became the theme of the offseason. Change to the coaching staff, change to the scheme and change to the personnel.

The results have been encouraging.

The Tigers are suddenly attacking opposing quarterbacks with pass rushers coming from every direction. They now have linebackers with the ability to play sideline-to-sideline. The defensive line no longer relies on 5-6 players to play the entire game. The group now has 10 different players averaging at least 10 snaps per game.

The results are encouraging. The Tigers have improved from one of the 10 worst Power 5 defenses in the country to a top 50 unit nationally.

Mizzou Defense vs FBS Opponents 2021 vs 2022

Statistical Category: 2022: 2021: Difference:
Statistical Category: 2022: 2021: Difference:
Points/Gm Allowed 26.8 34.3 -7.5
Yards/Carry Allowed 3.38 5.12 -1.74
Yards/Pass Allowed 6.7 8.3 -1.6
Passer Rating Against 116.2 149.57 -33.37
Yards/Play Allowed 4.97 6.32 -1.35
Takeaways/Game 1.5 1.25 0.25
Sacks/Game 2.5 2.33 0.17
TFL/Game 7.75 6.5 1.25
3D% Against 28.80% 43.30% -14.50%
RZ TD% Against 46% 74.50% -29%
20+ Yard Runs Against 17 (Prorated) 25 -8
20+ Yard Pass Against 30 (Prorated) 38 -8

How did it happen? Let’s take a look at the key differences from last year to this year.

1) Transfer Portal Additions

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 10 Missouri at Kansas State

Missouri added 10 transfers to the defensive side of the ball between the end of last season and the start of this year. Those additions have contributed 37 percent of the Tigers’ solo tackles, 47 percent of their tackles for loss, 30 percent of their sacks and 50 percent of their interceptions.

(Includes: Ty’Ron Hopper, Jayden Jernigan, DJ Coleman, Kristian Williams, Dreyden Norwood, Joseph Charleston, Josh Landry, Tyrone Hopper, Ian Mathews and LJ Hewitt)

Adding nearly a dozen players through the portal can be risky business. What if you’re wrong on your evaluation of a player? And what impact do the transfers have on your high school recruiting? Do the younger players transfer out due to a lack of opportunity?

Eli Drinkwitz and the coaching staff understood the inherent risk in building a defense this way in one offseason, but this juice was worth the squeeze. Ty’Ron Hopper is Missouri’s best player, full stop. He was arguably the best player on the field against the top-ranked team in the country last week. Jayden Jernigan, DJ Coleman and Kristian Williams have been massive contributors to the Tigers’ revamped defensive line. Joseph Charleston has been exactly what this defense was missing on the back end, and Dreyden Norwood has been playing as Missouri’s third cornerback.

2) Blake Baker has brought the aggression back to Missouri’s defense

NCAA Football: Missouri at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

I hate watching Virginia play basketball. Absolutely hate it. They’re good at their style, but it’s slow and plodding and hard to watch. Gonzaga, on the other hand, wins a whole heck of a lot with an athletic, up-tempo style of play. Both can work. There’s not a “right” or “wrong” way to go about it. But one is so much more enjoyable to watch than the other.

That’s how I look at defense. Can teams win with a two-gap system where the defensive line is asked to take up blockers as opposed to living on the other side of the line of scrimmage? Of course. It can work. It’s just less fun to watch as a fan. It also tends to create less havoc and results in fewer big plays going in the other direction.

That was, more or less, Missouri’s plan defensively in recent years. Keep as much in front of them as possible, eat blocks up front, and hope your linebackers can make a whole lot of plays.

This year is very different. The Tigers are attacking on nearly every snap. The defensive line’s job is to reset the line of scrimmage in the backfield, and they’re doing a heck of a job of doing exactly that. Ty’Ron Hopper is being utilized as a weapon all over the field, and he’s putting together a season for the ages. Martez Manuel is finally playing in the box again, and he’s looking like the player we all expected him to be. Daylan Carnell seems to make a big play every week. Missouri’s safeties and linebackers have nearly as many sacks (4) as the defensive line (6).

I was skeptical of what Baker would bring to Missouri’s defense. He had some mixed results in his time at Miami. We’re not even halfway through Missouri’s first season with Baker as defensive coordinator, but so far... so good!

So, the most important question is simple: Is Missouri’s defensive turnaround legitimate? I believe it is. The Tigers’ defense won’t be mistaken for Alabama or Michigan, but it’s a pretty darn good unit. They key in on the run, create havoc in the passing game and have a star player at every level.

That’s the recipe behind one of the biggest defensive turnarounds in college football this season. Eight Power 5 defenses ranked below Missouri in yards per play allowed last year. Those teams were Stanford, Georgia Tech, Virginia, Vanderbilt, Duke, TCU and Kansas. Those teams rank 124th, 63rd, 43rd, 120th, 70th, 45th and 55th, respectively, in yards per play this season. Missouri is 39h.

In other words, the Tigers have the biggest defensive turnaround on a per play basis in college football through the first five games of the season.