Entering the 2023 season, everybody and their mother knew about the expectations for this Missouri defense.
After all, the unit was fresh off a season in which it allowed 25 points per game, held teams to a meager 125.5 rushing yards per game, forced 16 turnovers and allowed a 43.41% 3rd down conversion rate. That all came in defensive coordinator Blake Baker’s first season at the helm.
How could they possibly top those numbers? Well, a good start would be returning eight starters from that vaunted defense, and that was exactly what happened. Baker only lost Isaiah McGuire, DJ Coleman and Martez Manuel from the ‘22 unit, and an influx of talent from the transfer portal seemed to be capable of offsetting those losses.
Add on the fact that the likes of Kris Abrams-Draine, Ennis Rakestraw Jr., Ty’Ron Hopper, Darius Robinson, JC Carlies, Daylan Carnell and plenty of other notable names would return and be more comfortable within Baker’s scheme, and many believed that this 2023 unit could live up the legendary defenses of ‘13 and ‘14. After all, the potential NFL talent on the ‘23 defense rivaled that of those loaded rosters.
So, have those expectations been met yet?
Missouri has allowed 20.2 points per game, 317 yards per game and forced four turnovers through five games.
For comparison, the 2022 defense had allowed 17.8 points, 337 yards per game and forced eight turnovers up to this point of the season.
“We won the game, but is that to the standard that we told you guys about all spring?” Darius Robinson said of the defense’s performance following the MTSU game. “We told you guys we want to be the best defense, and we have to get better.”
Robinson and country singer Hunter Hayes* can agree on one thing: “I don’t want ‘Good,’ and I don’t want ‘Good Enough.’”
At times, the ‘23 unit has been dominant. The second quarter shutout against Memphis and beginnings to the South Dakota and MTSU games are prime examples of that.
However, Baker’s defense has yet to put together a complete game like it did against South Carolina and Vanderbilt last year. Whether it be penalties, blown coverages or missed tackles, the unit has looked off for periods of every game thus far.
Against Vanderbilt, a roughing the passer call on Realus George Jr. allowed the ‘Dores to get out of their own end zone in the second quarter. Joseph Charleston also picked up a pass interference on the opening play of the game, Ennis Rakestraw picked up a PI in the fourth quarter and Daylan Carnell was called for holding when the Tigers were trying to put the game away late. Tackling angles were poor at times, and in other moments the Vanderbilt offensive line was able to will its runners forward for 2-3 more yards.
On top of that, blown coverages have been an issue thus far, and too many Commodores were running open on their first scoring drive of the game. Marvin Burks Jr. allowed a running back to run free on a 4th down conversion in the third quarter as well, Will Sheppard was untouched on his 31-yard touchdown reception in the fourth and Junior Sherril ran free on his 45-yard score.
“I’m disappointed in the last two touchdowns; with a cover three defense you just can’t allow somebody to run through the middle of the field,” Drinkwitz said. He also added that Burks’ eyes got caught in the backfield on the 4th down conversion, which comes down to a young player making a mistake.
Luckily, all of these miscues are very fixable, especially for a unit that features so many veterans and a defensive coordinator who has excelled at making adjustments during his time at Mizzou.
But, for this team to reach the high bar it has now set for itself, the defense needs to be far more polished.
The key will be how quickly adjustments can be made as the SEC schedule begins to heat up. A red-hot LSU offense will certainly look to expose some of these weak points next weekend. If the Bayou Bengals are able to find success in doing that next Saturday, then Mizzou may end up like Johnny Cash in his song “Sunday Morning Coming Down”, which reads: “Well, I woke up Sunday morning with no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt.”
But, as the great Dolly Parton** puts it: “Just stay on track and never look back.” That’s a great mindset for the Tiger defense to follow moving forward.
*From “I want crazy”
**From “Blue Smoke”