The Texas A&M defense is back in its groove.
A four-sack, five-tackle-for-loss and two-turnover showing against the nation’s number one team was just what defensive coordinator Mike Elko and his players needed after two tough losses. But they’ll have to forget all about it with 3-3 Missouri playing host on Saturday, Oct. 16.
Head coach Jimbo Fisher said he’s moved past the win over Alabama and the team needs to carry what they’ve learned into Columbus, Mo., against the Tigers.
“The important thing now is this game is over with, [I’m] tired of talking about it,” Fisher said. “The lessons we’ve learned … are wasted unless we carry them into this week. Missouri is a very tough place to play; they’re an outstanding opponent.”
Sophomore defensive back Antonio Johnson said Missouri is in a similar position as A&M, in that both teams have struggled but feel they’re close to firing on all cylinders.
“I feel like they’re in the same boat as us: they have a point to prove,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to go into this week just as focused as we were going into last week.”
A few A&M defenders have gotten hot in the last few weeks, most notably graduate defensive lineman Micheal Clemons, junior defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal and senior safety Leon O’Neal Jr. Those three and their experience will be just as important this week against a solid passing offense, and especially the rest of the season.
Clemons made it three straight games with at least one sack against Alabama, Leal has racked up three tackles-for-loss and two sacks the last three weeks and O’Neal had a career-high nine tackles against the Crimson Tide, with a sack and a pass breakup. Leal and Clemons also had six pressures each, the most among SEC defensive ends in Week 6.
Missouri head coach Eli Drinkwitz said A&M’s defensive front has impressive size and the Aggies use that size in different ways very well, whether it be filling gaps or rushing the quarterback.
“We’ve definitely got our hands full this week,” Drinkwitz said. “They’re all physical and big. They’ve got experience. They all have quick-twitch, can bullrush and can throw people off.”
Missouri and its 38 points-per-game offense is led by quarterback Connor Bazelak, running back and receiver hybrid Tyler Badie and receiver Keke Chism. In the Tigers’ three wins this year, Bazelak averaged 269 passing yards per game, threw eight touchdowns to no interceptions and completed 20 passes to Chism and Badie combined.
After the win over North Texas, Drinkwitz said Badie is perhaps the most underrated player in the country based on his abilities as both a runner and a receiver. Badie ran for over 200 yards in the win and scored three touchdowns — two on the ground, and one as a receiver. He’s logged over 800 total yards and scored 12 touchdowns this season.
“He’s probably the least talked about great player in the country right now,” Drinkwitz said. “He is really competing hard, and he’s a special player. We really need him.”
Fisher said Missouri’s offense can pose issues with its trickery, and all aspects of its offensive strategy are of high quality and can cause confusion among the defense. Badie is a factor in that confusion, and Fisher and Elko will have to pick and choose how they want him guarded.
“Eli does a great job,” Fisher said. “His running schemes, his counters, his stretches, his play action. He’s a great trick play guy, he’s always got eye violations and constant motions.”
A&M’s secondary wasn’t perfect by any means against Alabama, but its speed and ball skills from O’Neal, junior safety Demani Richardson and freshman cornerback Jaylon Jones make it tough on any offense — even those that thrive through the air and have versatile players.
The Tigers’ offense also ranks in the bottom half of the SEC in rushing yards per game, so Leal and Clemons should be able to get after the quarterback more often with Missouri ranking fourth in the SEC in passing yards per game and third in passes attempted.
Fisher said his defense needs to continue the mentality of being fierce and assertive early in games because the turnovers caused by this playing style were the main reason A&M won this past weekend.
“I thought our defense was very aggressive. I thought we affected the quarterback very well,” Fisher said. “Turnovers affect the outcome of a game greater than anything. We’ve got to get more of them, and we’ve got to keep getting them.”
A&M kicks off on SEC Network at 11 a.m. against Missouri on Saturday, Oct. 16. The Aggies are 2-3 at Faurot Field and hold an 8-7 all-time advantage against the Tigers.