Missouri Preview: Illini Must Chase Daniel

The Fighting Illini open the 2007 football season with high hopes for a successful season. Mature leadership, athleticism and speed are all in abundance. However, the schedule is difficult and begins with the powerful Missouri Tigers in the Edward Jones Dome Saturday in St. Louis.

Missouri is favored to win the Big 12 North this year, and with good reason. They have one of the most explosive offenses in the country and playmakers galore. Junior quarterback Chase Daniel (6'-0", 225 pounds) was a high school All-American from Texas, and he helped Tiger fans forget quarterback star Brad Smith with his accurate passing and overall athleticism.

Daniel threw for a record shattering 3527 yards and 28 touchdowns last season, completing 63.5% of his passes, and his overall quarterback rating was an impressive 139.40. His running skills make him even more dangerous in Missouri's wide open spread attack as he ran for nearly 400 yards and four touchdowns.

Coach Ron Zook is impressed with Daniel.

"The quarterback is a proven guy. You can tell that he's a winner, a competitor and has unbelievable accuracy. We've had scouts tell us that he reminds them of Drew Brees, which is not necessarily good for us. He is a very experienced player that can really throw the football."

The Tigers' receiving corps is equally impressive. Danario Alexander is drawing raves entering his sophomore year. The 6'-4", 205 pound Alexander is big and fast, making him extremely difficult to defend both as a receiver and a runner on reverses. He is joined by a covey of other top notch pass catchers. Will Franklin is a 6'-2", 205 pound senior who could have gone pro last year, and Jared Parry, Jeremy Maclin (recruited by Illinois), Greg Bracey, and Tommy Saunders can all fly.

If that isn't impressive enough, they have two tight ends who are being hyped as possible All-Americans. Chase Coffman and Martin Rucker are bookends at 6'-6", with Rucker being ten pounds heavier at 255. Both are on the field most of the time and present great difficulties for any defense with their height and athleticism. Rucker is considered the number one tight end prospect in the country by some sources.

Opponents cannot focus on the passing attack as Missouri has a 1000 yard rushing back in 5'-9", 200 pound Tony Temple. And he has good depth behind him. Missouri fans are excited about 6'1", 195 pound freshman Derrick Washington, but he is presently running 4th string. Coach Gary Pinkel says he will not face Illinois.

Illini senior defensive tackle Dave Lindquist describes Missouri's running game.

"They like to spread the defense and go side to side. That running back is real good at finding gaps. The offensive line likes to spread the d-line out and make us get out of our gaps. And once we get out of our gaps, the running back tries to hit the gap level and get out. So we have to play gap sound."

Overall, the Tigers return nine starters from their potent 2006 offense, and they have some promising replacements for those who have departed. Missouri experts claim their Tigers should average between 24 and 35 points a game and figure to outscore most opponents. The only problem most see with Missouri's offense is how quickly they score, forcing their defense to return to the field with little rest.

Senior four-year starter Chris Norwell, Illinois' star defensive tackle, is impressed with Missouri's offense but looks forward to the opportunity.

"Missouri's going to be a great challenge for us. But we're up to the task, and we're going to go out and put on a show. They are just like our offense. They spread it out, and we will have to watch out for their speed and how they spread it out on the field."

Illinois' defense was good last year and is improved now, but it will be no disgrace to give up some points Saturday. It will be important for them to slow the Tigers down and make them work for their points. The Mizzou spread offense operates quickly, so it is difficult to sack Daniel. And there is always the threat of a run, which might slow the rush further. Forcing some hurried passes can reduce Daniel's passing efficiency and improve the chance for turnovers.

Illinois may be forced to play five and six defensive backs to help neutralize Mizzou's pass plays if their base defense struggles, making Temple more dangerous on runs. Coach Ron Zook and co-defensive coordinators Dan Disch and Curt Mallory have their hands full game-planning for this outstanding offense.

If Mizzou has an achilles heel, it is their defense. It was porous last year, and they are still seeking answers at a couple positions. A big concern will be whether they can mount an effective pass rush. If they can't get to opposing quarterbacks, they could struggle. Of course, given how well their offense figures to play, they don't need a lot of stops to win games.

Illini sophomore receiver Joe Morgan provides detail on Missouri's defensive tendencies.

"From watching film, they run a base 4-3 (like Illinois) with cover 2 defense (two safeties playing deep). So we can't run as many deep routes as we might with cover 4 or cover 3. We have to work our intermediate routes, stuff like that. Cover 2 hurts their run defense. We have a good run offense, so we should be able to attack it. They try to prevent the long play."

Offensively, the Illini will need to keep the ball in their possession as much as possible to use clock and keep Missouri's offense off the field. A strong running attack led by Rashard Mendenhall would be a good start. Juice Williams will likely combine a short passing game with runs of his own to keep the Tigers from focusing solely on the running backs. But the emphasis will likely be on ball control and preventing turnovers. Giving the Tigers good field position with fumbles and interceptions will be the kiss of death for the Illini.

Illini special teams play should be improved over last year. Whoever is named the Illini punter will likely benefit from the ideal conditions inside the domed stadium. And field goal kicker Jason Reda is entering his senior campaign with a strong and accurate leg and three years of experience. He could be the difference in a close game.

One game does not make a season, and some teams rebound from an early loss with a string of victories. A win in the opener would be a great confidence boost for the Illini, but it isn't essential to a winning season. Coach Zook summed up the game.

"We know we are playing a good opponent. But, we have to play to the best of our ability. This is a great team, a great opportunity and a great challenge for us."

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