Kony Ealy surprised everyone Saturday night.
With two of the nation’s most efficient quarterbacks and two of the nation’s top-10 scoring offenses on the same field in Bloomington, Ealy showed the college football world why defense still matters.
The 275-pound defensive end leapt up late in the first half, plucked Nate Sudfeld’s throw out of the air and sprinted 49 yards for a score that changed the game and led unbeaten Missouri to a surprisingly easy 45-28 victory at Indiana.
“It changed momentum going into the half,” Ealy said. “The crowd got out of the game for a little bit there and that kind of gave some momentum to our offense to get out and just run the ball and try to score on them.”
While Tigers fans certainly enjoy seeing touchdowns pile up and all the eye-opening stats, they’ve also learned to appreciate having one of the nation’s most opportunistic defenses.
Ealy’s interception extended Missouri’s streak of consecutive games with a turnover to 33. It was the second time in two games that a Missouri defensive lineman scored on an interception return, and this time, even the high-scoring Hoosiers couldn’t recover.
There was plenty to celebrate other than Ealy’s big play for the Tigers.
Missouri (3-0) won in Bloomington for the first time since 1953 and ended an eight-game winless streak against the Hoosiers in the first matchup between these schools since 1992.
Coach Gary Pinkel, who installed this wide-open offense and turnover-hungry defense, won his 93rd game since coming to the school 13 years ago. He is now tied with Dan Devine for the second-most wins in school history, trailing only Don Faurot (101).
And after having a 300-yard passer, two 100-yard runners and a 100-yard rusher for the first time in school history Aug. 31 against Murray State, the Tigers were proficient again against the Hoosiers. This time, James Franklin threw for 343 yards and two touchdowns while running for another score, two receivers topped the 100-yard mark and Russell Hansbrough ran 13 times for 104 yards, closing it out with a late 45-yard TD run.
Yet it all changed after Ealy’s remarkable catch and laboring touchdown trot to take control.
“The kid just sat on the pass,” Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said. “A lot of teams will teach, just get your hands up. So we made an adjustment we probably shouldn’t have done.”
The interception ruined Indiana’s comeback bid. The Hoosiers (2-2) had rallied from a 14-0 deficit to tie the score and were moving back into scoring position after allowing Franklin to score on a 1-yard TD run that gave Missouri a 21-14 lead.
Things were never the same.
Over the next 24 minutes, the Hoosiers managed only two first downs and punted four times — the same total they had in the previous three games, combined.
“It (the interception) did a lot for us, it really uplifted us and we were excited,” Franklin said after going 32 of 47 with two interceptions.
Things weren’t supposed to be this tough on a night Indiana’s cool-looking chrome-striped helmets sparkled in the lights and the school honored the 1993 Independence Bowl team.
But the Hoosiers weren’t themselves.
Sudfeld, who entered the game seventh nationally in passer efficiency, wound up 21 of 39 for 229 yards with one TD and three interceptions before giving way to Tre Roberson. Cody Latimer caught eight passes for 136 yards and a score, while Shane Wynn added five catches for 90 yards and a touchdown. Wynn is the fifth player on Indiana’s current roster to top the 1,000-yard mark for his career.
Somehow, Missouri found a way to limit the Hoosiers, who had been averaging 50.0 points per game, to a season-low 28 — a number that would have been even lower if Roberson hadn’t thrown a 68-yard TD pass and scored on a 3-yard run in the final 11½ minutes after Indiana had fallen into an insurmountable 38-14 hole.
“I think our defense really responded well and did some really, really good things,” Pinkel said. “I don’t think the score is reflective of how they played but overall a lot of good things.”
The first half was everything people expected.
Indiana and Missouri combined for 627 yards, 93 plays, six touchdowns and five interceptions.
After Ealy’s interception, Missouri methodically used up the clock, extended the lead and finally sealed the outcome on Franklin’s 14-yard TD pass to L’Damian Washington early in the fourth quarter.
“They put their hands up really well and so we knew we were going to have to throw through windows and have some awkward deliveries and stuff,” Sudfeld said of the Tigers’ defensive line. “He just made a really good play.”