Mizzou fans spent the offseason fantasizing about a rejuvenated defense that could aid in its pursuit of a SEC East division crown, especially after last year’s squad gave up over 30 PPG and nearly 230 yards of rushing per contest.
The 2022 Tigers gave glimpses of what could be on Saturday, albeit against FCS foe Abilene Christian, during a 34-17 victory in Columbia. Mizzou pressured the Wildcats into nine punts and forced two turnovers while making the Abilene Christian offense look as uneasy as the 53, 253 in attendance baking under the 90 degree heat.
“I thought our defense played really well, specifically in the third quarter, forcing those two turnovers,” Drinkwitz said. “
The weather conditions offered a stark contrast to the torrential downpours in Manhattan, Kansas last week, which resulted in a 41-point showing for the Kansas State offense. Looking for a bounce-back effort, the Tigers’ defense warmed up to the opportunity under the radiant September sun.
Mizzou held Abilene Christian to 17 points, but those numbers do not tell the full story. The Wildcats’ first touchdown did not actually come on offense; instead, a Brady Cook fumble in the end zone resulted in the score. Then, on Abilene Christian’s only other touchdown drive, the Tigers had their defensive backups in the game time wound down in the fourth quarter.
So... Mizzou’s starting defensive unit actually held the Wildcats to only 3 points.
While this outcome is to be expected against an FCS opponent, Abilene Christian entered the game with back-to-back victories where it scored over 20 points. The Wildcats also managed a 50% third down conversion rate and tallied 389.5 yards per game throughout their victories over Lamar and Prairie View A&M.
Against the Tigers, however, Abilene Christian netted 308 total yards, but did not earn one possession inside the red zone. The Wildcats finished 3-13 (23.1%) on third down and failed to convert on their only fourth down attempt. Despite out-gaining Mizzou in yardage during the first quarter (113 yards to 109), the visitors added only 195 yards over the final three quarters.
The main difference between that opening period and the rest—Mizzou’s rushing defense.
“We obviously were doing badly at tackling in the first half [and] coach hit on that in the halftime meeting,” Ennis Rakestraw, Jr. said.
The Tigers allowed 7.5 yards per rush in the first quarter, but only 2.3 YPR the rest of the way. A majority of those rushing yards occurred on Abilene Christian’s 10-play, 77-yard drive that resulted in its field goal. On that drive, Jeremiah Dobbins recorded 50 rushing yards, aided by a 20- and 22-yard rush.
Dobbins finished the game at 74 rushing yards, emphasizing the impact the defense made as the game progressed. In fact, the only other rush that resulted in a gain of at least 10 yards came on a 15-yard rush in the third quarter from Anthony Smith. For a defense that ranked near the bottom of the FBS in rush defense last season, Mizzou stood its ground against an inferior opponent.
Outside of the rushing department, Rakestraw grabbed his first career interception in the third quarter and added a forced fumble as well. Chad Bailey recovered the fumble to force Abilene Christian’s second turnover of the game. Ty’Ron Hopper added five total tackles, including two for loss, while 11 other defenders notched at least two tackles.
“Two really good plays for [Rakestraw Jr.],” Drinkwitz said. “That’s his first career interception, and so I know he’s really excited about that.”
The defense forced seven three-and-outs and only allowed 11 first downs. Abilene Christian’s lone offensive touchdown was Maverick McIvor’s 49-yard touchdown pass to Blayne Taylor with less than two minutes remaining against Mizzou’s back-up units, pointing out a possible weakness in Blake Baker’s system.
“I thought we did pretty good, [but] we still have a lot to work on,” Josh Bailey said. “We got a lot of three-and-outs, we got off the field on third down, but we have to make tackles too.”
However, the Tigers’ defensive success throughout the week three victory represents a positive with the team headed into a matchup against Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium. The Tigers of Alabama scored 42 points in their opening victory over Mercer, but have just 36 points since then. With confidence and a reformed group, Baker’s unit has an opportunity to flip the script on last year while writing a new story on Mizzou’s defensive identity for 2022.
“We all we got, so I’d do anything for this team,” Rakestraw Jr. said.