NCAA Football

Missouri football: Fresh off a stretch, Blake Baker’s defense proves its mettle

Missouri football: Fresh off a stretch, Blake Baker’s defense proves its mettle

“A guru when it comes to naming these defenses.”

Those were the words that described senior linebacker Chad Bailey Missouri Tigers defensive coordinator Blake Baker, after another dominant effort by Mizzou’s defense against the Kentucky Wildcats.

The Tigers recorded six sacks (their most since Week 1 of 2021), 11 tackles for loss and three pass breakups while holding Kentucky to a 37.5 percent conversion rate on third downs. Despite the constant pressure and success, however, Mizzou (4-5, 2-4 SEC) dropped its fourth SEC game by one possession in a 21-17 loss to Kentucky (6-3, 3 -3 SEC).

For another week, the defense tried to rescue the Brady Cook-led offense, but fell dramatically short.

Entering Saturday, Mizzou had 17 sacks on the season, or 2.12 per game, but Kentucky contributed one of the nation’s worst sack rates, allowing 3.75 sacks per game. For Baker’s heavy-handed scheme, that meant payday was coming soon.

Senior defensive lineman Darius Robinson turned in one of the best performances of his career and had four total tackles, including 1.5 sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss. Graduate defensive lineman DJ Coleman had a season-high nine tackles and Bailey added seven tackles.

Earlier this week, Baker applauded his unit’s effort and success against then-No. 25 South Carolina, but left the door open for growth.

“I still think, and this isn’t talking about the coach, that there’s a lot of room for improvement,” Baker said in Tuesday’s media session.

Those areas of weakness were on display on Kentucky’s first possession, when the Wildcats marched down the field on an eight-play, 71-yard touchdown drive. On that drive alone, Kentucky converted two third downs and recorded two plays of 15+ yards.

“As part of the game, you know somebody’s going to mark you, but it’s how you handle it and how you come back from it that makes a great defense,” Mizzou defensive end Jaylon Carlies said.

From then on, the Wildcats didn’t fare well against Mizzou’s ferocious front.

Kentucky totaled only 242 meters in offense For context, the Wildcats entered the game averaging 352.6 yards per game, including 112.6 rushing yards and 240 passing yards. The Tigers cut those numbers to 82 yards rushing and 160 yards, respectively.

Will Levis, Kentucky quarterback and projected first-round quarterback 2022 NFL Draft, tied a season low in completions and posted his second-lowest amount of passing yards. He finished the game with 12 completions for 160 yards and three touchdowns.

Perhaps the most important element to the Tigers’ defensive turnaround, however, presented itself again.

“We stopped the run,” Mizzou head coach Elijah Drinkwitz said.

Kentucky running back Christopher Rodriguez Jr. he struggled for 112 yards on 29 carries, but his 3.9 yards per attempt was the second-lowest of the season and below his average (4.9). Outside of Rodriguez, the Wildcats were held to -30 rushing yards, mainly due to Levis’ sacks, which resulted in a loss of 39 yards.

Earlier in the week, Baker stressed the importance of avoiding those gains, saying, “It’s hard to win in this league and it starts and stops with the trenches.”

Although Mizzou didn’t win, the Tigers stepped up the trenches and improved their rushing defense, which ranked 25th in the nation entering the contest at 114.9 yards per game. They remain fourth in the SEC in that category, behind top-ranked programs Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee.

Looking at the weak points of Saturday’s performance, the Wildcats’ big gain plays (+15 yards) stand out. On just seven of those plays, Kentucky totaled 157 yards of offense. Three of those came on third downs, including two that happened while the Tigers were defending a pair of 3rd-and-11s.

All three of the Wildcats’ goals included one of those “big” plays, highlighting the impact they have on Mizzou’s defense. However, Kentucky’s last two were made easier with the help of the Tigers’ special teams.

“We’re just trying to give our defense a chance to make plays and not do something crazy on special teams,” Drinkwitz said.

Here’s what happened, though: A punt forced Mizzou’s Jack Stonehouse to take off for a first down, and he came up short to give Kentucky possession at the 34-yard line. Mizzou yards in the third quarter. Then, midway through the fourth quarter, a failed squib kick gave the Wildcats a start at their own 42-yard line.

Both possessions represented what the season has been like for Mizzou’s defensive unit. Despite consistently performing at an above-average level nearly every possession, mistakes on offense and special teams are holding back the program’s success.

Late in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game, that notion came to light once again when the defense forced a Kentucky three-and-out with 2:42 left in the game. The next play, as many of you will recall, resulted in a brutal penalty on the kicker. Despite the crowd’s feelings toward the call itself, it once again represented what the Tigers’ defense has had to deal with.

Almost every time the defense has been called upon this year, however, Baker’s group has risen to the challenge. Those efforts explain why Mizzou rewarded the defensive coordinator with an extension through the 2025 season and highlight the impact he’s had on the program in such a short time.

The Tigers, along with their stout defense, will travel to Knoxville next, and the Vols will look to expose Mizzou’s defense for the first time in weeks. With questions on offense and special teams, however, it will be up to the defense to try to get the Tigers back in the win column.

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