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‘STAR’-studded Defense: Mizzou showing improvement under Blake Baker

The rejuvenation of the Tigers’ defensive corps remains a positive amidst a season of uncertainty of Mizzou’s future.

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

It’s no secret Mizzou’s defense looks different under first-year defensive coordinator Blake Baker, who implemented an aggressive play-calling style to transform the Tigers’ defense from the hunted to the hunter.

Behind a front seven littered with transfers and veterans, as well as a secondary that continues to improve alongside the implementation of Baker’s ‘STAR’ position, the results are decidedly better than last season’s defensive disaster.

Defensive Statistics: 2021 vs 2022

Statistic 2021 2022
Statistic 2021 2022
Points Allowed 33.8 24.5
Passing Yards Allowed Per Game 206.8 192.8
Rushing Yards Allowed Per Game 227.8 108.5
Yards Per Play 6.4 4.7
3rd Down Defense 43.37% 26.70%
4th Down Defense 81.82% 55.60%
Red Zone Defense 92.59% 88.90%
Turnovers 16 6
Sacks 29.5 8

The most significant change in Mizzou’s defensive identity emerges within its rush defense, which looked historically bad at times last season. This year, however, the Tigers are No. 34 in the nation (No. 6 in SEC) in rush yards allowed per game and tied at No. 30 (No. 4 in SEC) in yards per rush at 3.17 yards.

What’s impressive about these statistics is the fact that Mizzou has faced two of the nation’s most notorious tailbacks—Deuce Vaughn and Tank Bigsby—within these first four games, holding them to a combined 196 yards on 43 carries. Not to be forgotten, the FBS and FCS’s No. 96 rushers hail from Louisiana Tech and Abilene Christian as well.

A key spark plug in this transition is Ty’Ron Hopper, who leads the team in total tackles (26) and tackles for loss (7). The defensive line unit has impressed too with its ability to contain the rush and limit the number of explosive carries. Key additions Kristian Williams and Josh Landry are making their presence felt up-front against opposing offensive lines.

Martez Manuel and Dylan Carnell have thrived in Baker’s ‘STAR” position, racking up a combined 22 tackles, including six for losses. Their quickness paired with the aggressive play-calling style continues to overwhelm opposing defenses, making the duo difference-makers at all times.

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

The improvement on the rushing end has forced opponents into throwing the ball more, but an already-stable pass defense looks poised to continue its success. Mizzou is one of 41 teams in the nation to allow less than 200 yards passing per game and the Tigers limit opposing quarterbacks to 6.48 yards per passing attempt, good for No. 27 in the nation.

Hopper, Jaylon Carlies, Joseph Charleston, Ennis Rakestraw, Jr., Kris Abrams-Draine and Chad Bailey have contributed to this success while providing a trusted veteran secondary to an already dominant defensive line.

Despite the success, Mizzou does have blemishes. The Tigers have allowed six offensive touchdowns of more than 20 yards, including four to the lesser-quality opponents, Louisiana Tech and Abilene Christian. Kansas State rattled off two rushing touchdowns of 24- and 28-yards in the closing minutes of its victory, emphasizing that work still needs to be done.

Mizzou has allowed 98 points through four games. When looking at those scores, it’s important to note how offensive turnovers and special teams mistakes have accounted for 14 of those points, so the Tiger defense has essentially limited its four opponents to 84 points. At 84 points (21 per game), the Mizzou defense would rank No. 49 in the nation.

For a team that gave up nearly 34 points per game last season, cutting that total by 13 represents a huge step forward. Now, I understand the thought process that this article will bring—well, Mizzou gave up 41 points to the only threatening team (K-State) so far while Auburn, Abilene Christian and Louisiana Tech paled in comparison offensively.

That sentiment may be true, but so is the fact that through the first four games against Central Michigan, Kentucky, SEMO and Boston College last season, the Tigers allowed 128 points (32 per game).

When looking at this year’s competition:

  • K-State just handed Oklahoma its first loss of the season, scoring 41 points on the Sooners, which marked the same amount they totaled against Mizzou.
  • Louisiana Tech scored 20 points on No. 5 Clemson after notching 24 points against Mizzou.
  • No. 11 Penn State held Auburn to 12 points, while the latter only scored 17 on Mizzou.
  • Abilene Christian has yet to score less than 21 points against any opponent not named Mizzou.

Yes, the Tigers are not perfect — nor will they be — but they continue to impress with a complete makeover from last year. The results are finally starting to show a pattern and it’s one that could result in more victories if the offense finds its groove, as noted in the graph below.

If you’re struggling to find the 2022 Mizzou Tigers, look no further than the spot next to our friendly neighbor to the north, Iowa. The Hawkeyes remain noteworthy for their stalwart defense (5.75 PPG) coupled with an inept offense (17 PPG). A year ago, Mizzou likely sat around North Carolina’s place, so the defensive transformation is hard to believe.

The shift centers around Baker, whose blitz packages and coverage schemes have systematically cut off opposing teams’ ability to establish offensive consistency. One key attribute to that has been Mizzou’s ability to recognize offenses and implement changes throughout the game.

When looking at the aforementioned 81 points the defense has allowed, the Tigers have given up 27 of those in the first quarter alone. Over the remaining three quarters, Mizzou allows 18 points on average, which has kept the offense within striking distance throughout the majority of each game.

Auburn scored touchdowns on its first two drives before going scoreless in the remaining three quarters, excluding overtime. Outside of a field goal on its third drive of the game, Abilene Christian did not score a touchdown until its final drive of the game against the Tigers’ backups.

K-State scored touchdowns on its first two drives as well, but totaled just two touchdowns and two field goals the rest of the way, even with strong field position on several of the drives. Louisiana Tech scored once each quarter, but threw two interceptions and punted seven times after its first points.

Another key to the defensive switch has been Mizzou’s efficiency at stopping opponents on third down. After last year’s putrid 43.37% mark (would be No. 110 this year), the Tigers rank No. 15 in the nation at 26.70%. Aggressiveness and veteran presence are two reasons for this shift, as Mizzou continues to identify the opposing offenses’ game plan before executing the stop.

Syndication: The Montgomery Advertiser Jake Crandall / USA TODAY NETWORK

That’s carried over to fourth down, where a smaller sample size notes the Tigers’ 55.60% defensive rate. Oftentimes, this situation comes down to whether Mizzou can stop the opposing tailback and so far, the Tigers have had success. A prime example of this occurred against Auburn when Hopper stopped Bigsby on a key 4th & 1 rush late in the fourth quarter.

With their third and fourth down defensive improvements, it’s only natural that Mizzou has improved in the red zone as well. The Tigers have allowed opponents to score at an 88.90% rate, which showcases an improvement on last year, but a weakness in the realm of college football. Mizzou is tied for the 95th-best red zone defense, which is on par with Houston, Hawaii and Colorado.

Those metrics highlight another area where the Tigers will look to improve heading into a slate of tough SEC matches against the likes of Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas. However, Mizzou can pride itself with the fact that the team has the No. 18 defensive efficiency, according to ESPN, which ranks sixth in the SEC.

Although the Tigers enter week five with a record sitting at .500, it’s obvious that the defense has little to do with the results. With the schedule ahead, it’s likely the metrics will change, especially with No. 1 Georgia awaiting. However, despite the outputs that come, it will be crucial to remember how Baker has shaped Mizzou’s defense into one that will be feared as the season continues.

For the first time in years, it looks like the defense is ready to feast and claw the Tigers back into contention, if the offense can keep up.