Rivals.com College Football Senior Writer
COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Missouri coach Gary Pinkel has enjoyed some notable victories during his nine seasons in Columbia, but none tops the 36-27 win over BCS No. 1 Oklahoma last Saturday.
It was the signature victory he had been looking for, a program-validating triumph that has Missouri thinking big.
And Pinkel can thank the defense.
Defense no longer is a dirty word in these parts, something to be ashamed about and covered up by a prolific offense. Now, the defense is something to brag about, a true strength and a unit that may be the best in the Big 12.
"Missouri played very good defense, especially in the [second] half," said Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, who may get another shot at the Tigers in the Big 12 title game.
Defense is why Mizzou is 7-0 for the first time since 1960 and has legitimate national championship aspirations as it heads to Nebraska on Saturday to play what in essence is a de facto Big 12 North title game.
Missouri was unranked entering the season but now is No. 6 in the BCS poll and one of just seven unbeatens in the nation. The visit to Nebraska now is even bigger than the Oklahoma game. The last time Mizzou went to Lincoln, it won 52-17 -- the Tigers' first win there since 1978. But this is a different Huskers squad. This is a better Huskers squad. To win Saturday, Mizzou's defense must continue to build on its impressive numbers:
No. 4 overall in the Big 12 (339.1 ypg)
No. 2 vs. the run (114.6 ypg)
No. 5 vs. the pass (224.6 ypg).
Missouri also leads the Big 12 in the defensive stat that matters the most: scoring defense (13.1). The Tigers' 92 points allowed through seven games are the fewest by the program since 1973, when Mizzou yielded just 66 through seven contests.
But facing a Huskers attack led by speedy redshirt freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez will be a challenge unlike any Missouri has faced thus far.
"They haven't seen anybody like us, so hopefully with what we do, it will be different," said Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson, whose unit scored 51 points against previously unbeaten Oklahoma State last week. "We always tweak, so what they see is not necessarily what they are going to get.
"It will be a good battle because their kids up front are definitely a strength of their football team. Very impressive group. It will be a real challenge for our offensive line and tight ends."
The last time Nebraska faced a defense like Missouri's, it got stuffed in a 20-13 loss at home to Texas earlier this month. The Huskers were held to 202 yards and the only touchdown came on a punt return.
While the Tigers' defense lacks the overall athletic ability and star power that the Longhorns possess, its sum is greater than its parts.
On the defensive
Missouri's defense has made marked improvement in recent seasons. This season's unit is even better than the 2007 defense, which helped the program to a No. 1 ranking that season. Here's a look at some key defensive yardage and scoring numbers; Big 12 ranks are in parentheses:
"I don't know that we have a lot of great, great players on defense, but we've got some real good ones," Pinkel said. "We're playing really good team defense, and that's giving us a chance for some consistency."
Credit defensive coordinator Dave Steckel. Since being promoted when Matt Eberflus left after the 2008 season to become linebackers coach for the Cleveland Browns, Steckel has completed a makeover of a once-passive Mizzou defense.
Under Eberflus, the Missouri defense usually employed a bend-but-don't break scheme that usually did more breaking than bending and often looked lost in coverage. The defense used multiple zones and struggled to get consistent pressure on quarterbacks. The result: big plays for the opposition.
Steckel, who turned 53 on Monday, has been with Pinkel for all 10 of the coach's seasons at Missouri; Pinkel hired him off the staff at Rutgers. Steckel has made this a more aggressive defense, installing blitzes and employing aggressive, in-your-face man coverage. The aggressiveness isn't surprising when you consider that Steckel -- whose brother, Les, coached 32 years in the NFL and was head coach of the Vikings in 198 -- spent 1975-78 in the Marines.
The defense is paced by a standout secondary. The leader is cornerback Kevin Rutland, a senior who has put his inconsistent past behind to emerge as a playmaker. And the safety tandem of Kenji Jackson and Jarrell Harrison excels in run support and is a major reason this defense no longer is haunted by coverage breakdowns and big plays.
The unit is bolstered by the best group of ends in the Big 12. The unquestioned star is pass rusher-deluxe Aldon Smith, who returned for the Oklahoma game after missing three contests with a broken leg. Jacquies Smith, Michael Sam and Brad Madison also are forces off the edge.
Andrew Gachkar, who is having an All-Big 12 season, and speedy Zaviar Gooden, who is tied for the team lead in tackles with Gachkar, anchor an active linebacking corps.
In addition to altering schemes, Steckel has injected a new attitude to the defense. He frequently can be seen exhorting players with an in-your-face style that is reminiscent of a drill sergeant. And the players have responded.
"They give you multiple looks," Watson said. "Here is where I would start it off at: They have great personnel. They have a really good defensive unit and they play a lot of players. They have done a really nice job of developing their players. Their scheme then adds to that -- a lot of multiple looks, a lot of different types of pressures that they can put on an offense. They have done a nice job.
"I think their defense is the one thing everybody around the country is saying that's where the biggest improvement is in Missouri."
Steckel's work is even more impressive when you consider he has had to deal with myriad injuries and suspensions. Smith (leg), Harrison (knee), linebacker Will Ebner (suspension), safety Jasper Simmons (knee/suspension) and linebacker Luke Lambert (hamstring) all have missed time.
On top of that, the Tigers lost their best defensive player from last season, as Sean Weatherspoon was a first-round pick by Atlanta.
But Mizzou has pressed on and gotten better.
The defense is at its best in the red zone. Opponents have scored just 52 percent of the time inside the 20, which is the lowest percentage in the nation. That red zone excellence was on display against the Sooners, who scored on only three of six red zone trips.
Another key to the defense's success has been takeaways, as the Tigers rank 19th in the nation in turnover margin. Against the Sooners, Missouri won the turnover battle 3-2. That makes 29 consecutive times the Tigers have won a game when they have claimed the turnover battle.
"They play hard, real hard," Nebraska receiver Mike McNeill said. "They flow to the ball. There are guys always around. They are fast-flowing. I think they just kind of stepped up in every area. They have a good D-line. They have good players at each position, and any time you do that you have a solid unit. They don't really have any weak spots."
That is why Mizzou is unbeaten and thinking national championship.