Defense unable to tackle Illini opener

By Daniel Johnson

After another disheartening, season-opening loss, head coach Ron Zook was nothing, if not contrite.

“The thing I just told the football team is this,” he said in his post-game press conference Saturday. “We are a better football team. Unfortunately, maybe we’ve been telling them that too much; maybe they have been told that too much.”

Zook and his coaching staff have been trumpeting the improvements that have been made on both sides of the ball this year, specifically the defensive line and linebackers. Defensive coaches had told media outlets throughout spring and summer football that the defensive line would be the strength of the team for the year.

Unfortunately, that was hardly the case against Missouri, when a defensive line that helped total 40 sacks last year could only muster one – on a play that showcased linebacker Martez Wilson’s ballyhooed speed more so than a great defensive scheme.

The more pressing concern for Zook and the team was the line’s inability to perform after so much was expected of it.

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“Honestly, I think the strength of our football team did not play very well,” the head coach said. “Once again, maybe we’ve been telling them they are the strength of our football team (too much.) I don’t have any doubt in my mind that (defensive line coach) Tom Sims will get that fixed. Secondary was (doing) a lot of the things we’ve been coaching that you can’t do. Once again, when you play a team of that caliber, you’re going to get hurt.”

Sims talked Monday after practice about how he felt about his unit’s performance, one he was unimpressed with.

“We did not play at the level that we are capable of, no way around it,” Sims said. “We found out where we are, and we gotta build on it.”

Sims said that the issue wasn’t so much that the line was getting outplayed physically, but rather that his team was out of position.

“In watching the film (of the game), what I learned was it wasn’t getting knocked off the ball or even getting reached and knocked out of their gap, what it was, was assignment football,” Sims said. “(The defensive line) was not consistently being where we were supposed to be when the defense called for us to be there. That was our part in the breakdown.”

The breakdown of the defense was one that was evident to Missouri players during the game.

“There was a lot of holes in the defense,” Missouri tight end Chase Coffman said Saturday. “They did a great job of closing those holes sometimes and stopping us, but we went out and made plays.”

Zook bemoaned reporters throughout the week when asked if the game Saturday was purely a track meet, citing the fact that when a team like Missouri runs for more than 226 yards, their opponent rarely has a chance. But Missouri was able to gain a lot of yards through the open holes in the first and second levels of the Illini defense, which both Wilson and Sims accredited to the talent of Chase Daniel.

“If you watch the game, you’ll notice (Daniel) gets rid of the football, the ball is gone on rhythm,” Sims said of Daniel’s ability to throw the ball within the time frame that the offense dictates. “To blitz him is pretty much futile.”

Zook and Sims weren’t the only coaches beside themselves after the defense gave up 226 rushing yards, 549 total yards and 52 points. Co-defensive coordinator Dan Disch was asked about how he felt the two new starting safeties, Bo Flowers and Travon Bellamy, performed.

“They struggled at times,” Disch said. “They had some missed tackles, bad angles. We probably put them in some tough situations.”

While Disch was speaking about the duo, his linebackers were quick to admit their own faults.

“I know myself, I left about five missed tackles out there,” senior Brit Miller said. “Going against a team like that, you gotta pressure them, you gotta hit them, and we just weren’t able to get it done today.”