Fragile Missouri Tigers Defense Needs To Lead Charge Against Wildcats

Ryan FallerAnalyst INovember 14, 2009

COLUMBIA, MO - NOVEMBER 07:  Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon #12 of the Missouri Tigers reacts after stopping the Baylor Bears offense during the game at Faurot Field/Memorial Stadium on November 7, 2009 in Columbia, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The members of the Missouri defense will tell you that whatever frustration mounts on the field from week to week is better left on the field, so as to not interfere with preparation for the next opponent's offense.

But you still have to wonder how many times the wounds have been licked, in an effort to do nothing more than temporarily soothe the pain inflicted by the Baylor Bears.

The sort of sting that accompanied the Tigers' loss last Saturday doesn't subside without a fight. It brought about the ensuing week's worth of incessant media scrutiny and speculation, which was nicely fueled by head coach Gary Pinkel's reportedly intense closed-door "conversation" with his team the day following the collapse to the previously lifeless Bears.

But Pinkel wasn't alone. Senior linebacker Sean Weatherspoon , unanimously considered to be the vocal leader of the MU defense, asserted his leadership by initiating some in-house tongue-lashing of his own. 

Refraining from naming names, Weatherspoon called out several of his younger defensive mates for not emulating the preparation methods and work ethic of Missouri's more experienced players. He also cited a noticeably lax mindset as one of the contributors to a disturbing "loosey-goosey" attitude on the eve of the Baylor game.

"We know that we got young guys on this team and it's our job to get those guys moving in the right direction," Weatherspoon said Monday, referring to the duties of the defense's elder statesmen. "It's kind of odd to me, because when I came in, I looked at the older guys and wanted to be just like them. Whatever they were doing to be on that field, that's something I wanted to do.

"Right now, we're not seeing that. I can't put my finger on it, but I can tell you this—we're still going to keep preparing and go out there and practice hard."

Potential cohesiveness issues aside, Missouri's defensive preparation for its next opponent, Kansas State, began with putting the Baylor game in the rear view mirror, but it presumably included focusing on a number of troublesome areas.

Other than correcting the fundamental breakdowns that led to nearly 20 missed tackles against Baylor, the Tigers must also plug up a leaky pass defense that allowed two passes of 50 yards or more, and could arguably be to blame for this week's unflattering chatter surrounding the defense.

"Giving up that many yards in a game is unacceptable," cornerback Kevin Rutland said at MU's recent media session. "I think the only way to go is up right now."

Maybe so. But in order to heal its bruised psyche and restore morale against the Wildcats, the MU defense will have to first and foremost excel at what it has done well for most of this season: stopping the run.

The ying to Baylor's yang, Kansas State takes pride in running the ball right at opponents—nearly to the point at which the game plan defies the dominant aerial mentality of Big 12 offenses.

Unlike the Bears, who were content to substitute their running game for a horizontal, screen-based passing game en route to record-setting day through the air, Kansas State won't deviate from trying to pick up huge chunks of yards on the ground. 

Terribly one-dimensional, the Wildcats, led by their old-school mentor, Bill Snyder, have run the ball 427 times, nearly twice as much as they have thrown it (234). More so, only seven teams in the country have attempted to run the ball more than KSU. The Wildcats, with 1,097 yards for the season, have the NCAA's 16th-best running attack.

"They've got a tough running game," Weatherspoon said. "They're going to come out and run the ball at you—that's just what they do...they're going to try to run the ball down our throat, and as the front seven, you live for those games."

As Weatherspoon said, KSU does run the ball, and they do it through tailback Daniel Thomas . The former Florida commit and journeyman Juco player is quietly becoming one of college football's premiere ball-carriers , despite never having played the position before in his life. In 10 games this season, Thomas has run for 1,087 yards and 11 scores to lead the Big 12 in both categories.

What's more though, is the fact he is the undisputed lifeblood of the Kansas State offense. You stop Daniel Thomas, you stop the Wildcats, who are 106th in the country with 164.1 yards per game via the pass.

As potentially frail as it may be heading into Manhattan, the Tigers' defense is rather stout when it comes to defending against the run. 

Save for the occasional hiccup here and there, MU's run defense has been lost in a shuffle of inconsistency. For the season, the Tigers rank just fifth in the Big 12, allowing 102 yards per game on the ground, but that number is good enough for 19th-best in all of college football.

But each of those statistics improves when you isolate Missouri's five games against conference opponents , putting the Tigers behind only Texas and Oklahoma State for the right to claim the Big 12's stingiest D against the run.

It appears to be a matchup of strengths: KSU's dedicated running game versus MU's sneaky-good run defense. The other half of the equation—the MU offense against the KSU defense—is irrelevant. After all, you never know if the Missouri offense will come out for the second half, while the Wildcats' defense has been nothing better than pedestrian.

If the Tigers are to put a damper on Kansas State's hopes of winning a division crown while earning bowl eligibility for a fifth consecutive season, the defense will have to claim responsibility.

With or without the wounds.