Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
With a young defense still grasping the nuances of college football, Missouri coordinator Dave Steckel made an astute decision that belied his lack of experience in his new job.
Namely, why not unleash “The Scorpion?”
Steckel’s simplified four-man pass rush featured three defensive ends in the lineup at the same time to boost the athleticism of his defensive front.
“Coach Steckel said he got a little bored calling the same defense over and over,” Missouri linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. “But why change anything when our base was working like it did?”
That assessment might have been one of the biggest understatements of the young season. The Tigers’ defense stung Illinois in a convincing 37-9 victory that ranked as the biggest surprise of the weekend in the Big 12.
Yes, that was the same Missouri defense that ranked 98th nationally in total defense and 117th in pass defense last season. The Tigers were also supposed to be reeling from the loss of first-round draft pick Ziggy Hood, top pass-rushing specialist Stryker Sulak and inspirational leader William Moore from last season.
But Missouri coach Gary Pinkel has been telling anybody who would listen this summer that his defense is faster and more athletic than any unit he has had at Missouri.
And “The Scorpion” proved that.
Steckel realized that he had so much talent at defensive end that it didn’t make sense not to play his best players together. So along with starting defensive ends Jacquies Smith and Brian Coulter, redshirt freshman defensive end Aldon Smith was added to the mix at defensive tackle.
Aldon Smith was the most productive of Missouri’s defensive linemen, producing a sack and six tackles, including three for losses. He saw action at both end and tackle and continually harassed Illinois quarterback Juice Williams.
“It was just a team effort and everybody did their job,” Smith said. “Some people might be surprised, but I’m not. We worked so hard in the off-season getting this down and Saturday’s game was the result of it.”
Yes, that was the same Illinois quarterback who torched the Tigers for 451 passing yards and five touchdowns in a wild 52-42 shootout that Missouri was fortunate to win in 2008. He was limited to 179 passing yards in Saturday’s loss.
The Missouri defense didn’t flinch this time around. And a secondary that was a running punch line last season didn’t allow a completion of longer than 24 yards against the Illini.
Obviously, the Tigers were helped when top Illinois wide receiver Arrelious Benn went down with an ankle injury early in the first quarter and produced only one catch. But the Tigers sat back and dared Williams to beat them with his arm – and he couldn’t do it.
Weatherspoon also credited Steckel’s presence on the sideline for helping the defense improve. In the past, Missouri defensive coordinators were situated in the press box. But Steckel, a former Marine known for his intensity, was on the field exhorting his team.
“I think our communication was a whole lot better,” Weatherspoon said. “Coach Steckel still has a few wrinkles that nobody has seen. Our defensive line got a little bit more pressure. It was a good day to show what we could do.”
Having their fiery coach so close to his team provided a little extra motivation for the Missouri defense, Weatherspoon said.
“Now, you would have to face him as you came on the field,” Weatherspoon said, chuckling. “In the old days, we could wait until halftime or after the game. But now, he’s right there waiting if somebody made a mistake.”
In Missouri's opener, "The Scorpion" kept Steckel relatively quiet.