Missouri captain and cornerback Kevin Rutland has gotten plenty of compliments and kudos on campus and elsewhere in Columbia. That's because he is the head of a unit that leads the Big 12 in scoring defense and his 14 forced turnovers is tied for second in the conference.
"It's been special so far, and you take note of it and would like it to keep going," Rutland said. "But we take it with a grain of salt. We know things can change, but we know if we keep our play at the level it’s been, we’ll be just fine."
He would know. Rutland played corner for a defense that ranked outside the top 100 in pass defense a year ago, frustrating fans with its penchant for giving up backbreaking big plays.
This season, limiting those big plays has been goal No. 1.
"That’s always gotten us, whether it’s the big pass play or big run play, and not that we haven’t experienced those things because we have, but we're trying to keep those things to a minimum," he said.
There was a 93-yard touchdown run by San Diego State's Ronnie Hillman and a 42-yard run by Illinois running back Mikel Leshoure this year. None of those cost Missouri a game, unlike the 400-plus yards Baylor quarterback Nick Florence racked up in the Bears' lone conference win in 2009, highlighted by a 59-yard touchdown pass to Kendall Wright.
Missouri was never better this year than on Saturday when they shut out Colorado in a 26-0 win. Rodney Stewart's 22-yard run and a Scotty McKnight's 22-yard catch were the only sizeable chunks of yardage the defense gave up. Missouri is 5-0, thanks largely to its defense, and is headed to College Station for its first game outside the state this season.
"We’re getting better each week and with a lot of the little things, attention to detail things that we need to do and we haven’t arrived in any way, I’m not implying that, we’ve got some great tests ahead of us, including this week, but it seems like we’re playing real well as a team, together, as a unit," said coach Gary Pinkel.
They've had to do it without a full squad. Suspensions and injuries have kept contributors at every level of the defense off the field. Star defensive end Aldon Smith, who had 11.5 sacks a year ago, is out with a broken fibula and is expected to miss Saturday's game against Texas A&M.
"I’ll give some of the credit to experience and some of it to trust between coaches and players," Rutland said. "We go out there and we know what’s expected of us. The coaches have enough faith in us and enough trust in us to get job done, whatever the call may be. Whether we’re blitzing or we’re in zone coverage or man coverage. The coaches have so much trust in us, from the secondary down on to D-line, that it’s really opened up the playbook."
Rutland, a senior, has been one of the reasons why the coaches trust the unit. Rutland has adjusted to the team's more aggressive style under coordinator Dave Steckel and life as a team captain.
"My role is a lot more important than it’s been," Rutland said. "When there's a time to step up and say something, I enjoy being that guy. That’s the biggest thing, but even in practice or before a game or after the game, during the game, anything I can do. I like to go out there, make sure I’m doing my best and send a positive message with a great example to my teammates."
Texas A&M will be the toughest test yet for Missouri, and it won't get any easier. The Tigers host Oklahoma next week and travel to Lincoln for what could be a de facto Big 12 North championship game on Oct. 30. They will face the Huskers dynamic running game spearheaded by freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez.
So far a defense that returned nine starters from last year's team, but lost linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and defensive tackle Jaron Baston, has been as good or better than anyone might have expected.
"Players, athletes get better, if they’re good athletes and they keep working hard to improve and get better. People say they have so many starters back, but if the starters aren’t very good, it’s not going to matter," Pinkel said. "We have many tests to go here, but very pleased with the progress so far."