COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) -Missouri became a Top 10 team last year because of its prolific offense. It expects to stay there with the help of a defense it can become equally proud of.
The No. 6 Tigers have all but one starter back on a unit that made significant strides during last year's march to a school-record 12 victories entering the opener Saturday night against No. 20 Illinois in St. Louis. They've progressed to the point that at times in practice they've confused their Heisman Trophy-finalist quarterback.
Chase Daniel, who triggered an attack that averaged 40 points a game, said it's been difficult at times to pick up coverage schemes.
``It's screwed us up a couple of times and finally we got the hang of it,'' Daniel said. ``It's a lot different from last year.''
That's the type of result that can give a defense plenty of confidence, even before they've played a game.
``We definitely try to rattle Chase a little bit,'' linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. ``He's a great quarterback, and we figure if we can do well against our offense, we can do well against any offense.''
Missouri had to outscore some opponents early last season. Illinois had 435 yards in total offense, and Mississippi had 534 yards and 25 points.
The next eight opponents all were held below 400 yards in total offense. Missouri struggled in a pair of losses to Oklahoma, costing the school a shot at the national title, but the Tigers recovered to stuff No. 25 Arkansas and Heisman finalist Darren McFadden in the Cotton Bowl, holding the Razorbacks to seven points and 361 yards.
``They just got better and better,'' coach Gary Pinkel said. ``There's some talent there, they just needed the experience. At the end of the year, we were a pretty darn good defense.''
Throw out the non-conference schedule and Missouri led the Big 12 in fewest yards allowed, and was in the top three in rushing defense, pass efficiency defense, points allowed and pass defense. Three of the five juniors who submitted their names to the NFL as possible early draftees were on defense - safety William Moore, tackle Ziggy Hood and end Stryker Sulak.
Moore had a school-record eight interceptions, tied for the most in the country.
Some Missouri players realize that the defense probably always have to take a backseat, especially with Daniel and All-American all-purpose threat Jeremy Maclin leading the Tigers' no-huddle spread offense. Even if the only newcomer, junior nose tackle Jaron Baston, has extensive experience.
They don't seem to mind.
``We know our job, we know our place,'' Sulak said. ``We've got to get the offense the ball. If we don't get the coverage, we really don't mind.''
But they expect Illinois, for starters, to take note of the improvement.
``It was the first start for a lot of guys last year, the atmosphere and the whole St. Louis thing,'' Weatherspoon said. ``Guys were just a little nervous, and that's how it happened.
``We'll come out there this year and try to finish the game.''
Notes: One defensive starter, LB Van Alexander, likely won't be ready for the opener coming off knee surgery. But Alexander has impressed the coaching staff with a quick rehab and could play in the second game Sept. 6 against Southeast Missouri State. ... TE Chase Coffman will play with three pins in his broken left pinky, which he doesn't expect to hinder his pass catching. ... WR Jared Perry (shoulder) practiced Saturday and Sunday and is expected to be available for the opener.

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