Illini fans were undoubtedly suffering from "deja vu all over again" at halftime. A collapse before the half, shoddy tackling, turnovers that led to easy scores, inconsistent punting, special teams breakdowns, and injuries to key players all brought back nightmares from seasons past. Fortunately, the Illini fought back and had a chance to win at the end despite their problems. As a result, the Illini Nation continues to believe success is not far away.
Coach Zook wouldn't use excuses for the loss but praised Missouri while holding out hope for his Illini.
"They're everything their supposed to be. The good thing is we played them toe to toe. I feel in the second half it was a game that could go either way. But until we stand up and say 'That's enough,' we're still going to have this sick feeling. We are an improved football team. There's no question in my mind we'll get better as the season goes along."
A near capacity crowd of 62,352 in the cavernous Edward Jones Dome watched the game start slowly as each team tried to feel out the other's tendencies. Similarities to the Mizzou-Illinois Bragging Rights basketball series were obvious with Illinois fans together on one side of the field and Missouri the other. Of course, being in enemy territory allowed Tiger fans to outnumber Illini fans, but the seeds for a long-term rivalry were present.
Both teams played bend-but-don't-break defense. Missouri's defense showed surprising strength early, especially against Illinois' rushing offense. Starting quarterback Juice Williams was tentative and took a couple of series to get started.
On Missouri's second series, the Illini were able to pressure star quarterback Chase Daniels to throw incomplete, and then Dave Lindquist forced Daniels to incur a penalty for illegal grounding while trying to avoid a sack. With Missouri now backed up near their own end zone, Vontae Davis flew up the middle to block the Missouri punt and then run the ball into the end zone for the first score of the game. Placekicker Jason Reda had his extra point blocked.
Missouri is a big play offense, and they quickly countered with a Jeremy Maclin reverse for 29 yards and a Daniel to Will Franklin pass for 32 more. Big and talented tight end Martin Rucker lined up as a running back and ran four of the remaining five yards to the end zone, and then Daniel hit tight end Chase Coffman with a one yard TD strike. The touchdown and made extra point eliminated Illinois' early advantage. The quarter ended with the score 7-6.
The second quarter was a nightmare for the Illini. It started well with Juice Williams scrambling all over the backfield before finding true freshman Brian Gamble for a 22 yard gain. But right afterward, Juice went helmet to helmet with a Missouri defender and had to leave the game. His helmet was forced into his right eye socket, causing swelling and some vision impairment temporarily.
Williams didn't play thereafter, although Coach Zook said afterward he doesn't expect a long recovery period.
"I think he is going to be alright. It's day to day. I saw him in the locker and he said he was ok. He was in the game. He had headsets on and knew what was going on. He was pulling for everybody."
With Juice absent, redshirt freshman Eddie McGee was thrown into his first college action. Predictably, he was unpredictable. A bad snap had forced Missouri to shank a punt for a zero yard gain, and the Illini had the ball deep in Tiger territory for McGee's second possession.
McGee fumbled and then recovered his second snap of that series, but he was less fortunate a short while later. A 16 yard McGee to Jacob Willis pass netted 16 yards to Mizzou's 2 yard line. But when Eddie tried to run himself for the TD, he fumbled into the waiting arms of Missouri's Cornelius Brown, who returned the ball over 100 yards to complete a Tiger score. McGee knew immediately what he had done wrong, according to Offensive Coordinator Mike Locksley.
"There are no excuses for turning it over. The fumble down on the goal line, reaching the ball over the goal line, that's a no-no. It's something I've said from day 1. When he was wrong, it was the first thing he said when he came off the field."
Daniel Dufrene's 22 yard scamper highlighted the Illini's next possession, and a McGee 7 yard pass to Kyle Hudson gave them another first down. But a catchable pass downfield to Joe Morgan occurred immediately before McGee fumbled again trying to run up the middle.
Aided by extreme momentum, the Tigers drove confidently right down the field. When star cornerback Vontae Davis had to leave the game briefly with leg cramps, Daniel went to work against replacement Chris Duvalt. A pass into the endzone from Daniel to Will Franklin gave Missouri a 20-6 lead. When Duvalt then fumbled the next kickoff, the Tigers were able to add a 27 yard field goal to end the half 23-6.
In the past, the Illini would hang their heads and stop competing when faced with such devastation. One of the Missouri assistants made that reference after the game, saying the Illini showed him something by fighting back in the second half. And Coach Zook concurred.
"I'm very proud of them. They could easily have shut it down and quit, but they didn't. They kept fighting. As a coach it makes you feel good because you know you have good people. You've got winners. That's a good football team, and it's going to help us down the road. We get into another battle like that and we will learn from this game."
The Illini took the second half opening kickoff and marched downfield with confidence. McGee had three completions including a 15 yarder to Gamble and an 11 yarder to Rashard Mendenhall. Rashard then gave the crowd a glimpse of his potential by weaving through the Tiger defense and showing good second effort to plow into the endzone and put the Illini back into the game at 23-13.
That was the ideal time for the Illini defense to rise up and shut down the vaunted Tiger offense, but it didn't happen. To Missouri's credit, they regrouped quickly. Jeremy Maclin completed a long but all too quick march with a 25 yard TD scamper.
Another huge momentum swing for the Tigers allowed them to rise up defensively and manhandle the Illini on their next possession. Jacob Willis made a leaping 12 yard catch for a first down before freshman Arrelious Benn was thrown for a 10 yard loss on a reverse. The Tigers bailed out the Illini temporarily with a pass interference call, but Benn lost nine more yards on an option run and McGee was sacked to end the drive.
Kyle Yelton entered the game for his first and only punt at this point. Coach Zook felt the Tigers might pressure the punter since they had so much momentum, and Yelton has the quickest release of all Illini punters. Yelton got the punt off, but it didn't have sufficient hang time for the Illini to cover it. Thus, Maclin used his athleticism to run right through the Illini punt coverage team for a long touchdown.
At 37-13, some Illini fans undoubtedly considered an early exit. However, anyone who left missed an exciting conclusion. McGee led the Illini downfield 72 yards in 7 plays, running the final 16 yards to paydirt. Other highlights included a nice 30 yard run by Dufrene and a beautiful leaping catch by Benn on the sideline for a 25 yard completion. Scoring in only 2:03 showed that Missouri is not the only potent offense.
Momentum had switched back to Illinois. Further proof was supplied immediately afterward when Danario Alexander fumbled the ball back to Illinois. The Illini went for a quick strike and got it in the person of Hudson, who hauled in a 41 pass from McGee for the touchdown that put Illinois back within ten points of Missouri.
After another exchange of punts, Missouri quarterback Daniel had the ball stripped from his hand while beginning to pass by the blitzing Justin Sanders. Defensive end Derek Walker picked up the fumble and rumbled an additional 5 yards to the Mizzou 4 yard line. Mendenhall ran the ball in for the touchdown on second down, bringing the Illini almost all the way back at 37-34.
Unfortunately, that was to be as close as the Illini got to victory. Missouri moved the chains with efficiency. Defensive end Doug Pilcher chased Daniel into an incompletion, and St. Louisan Jerry Brown tipped and almost caught an errant Daniel throw that would have given the Illini a great opportunity. Given a second life, the Tigers added a 32 yard field goal with 8:32 remaining in the game.
The Illini continued to fight, and McGee found Rashard Mendenhall as a third option on the sideline, and Rashard rumbled for 42 big yards. Unfortunately, that drive ended when McGee threw an interception to Missouri's William Moore.
After Missouri missed a 49 yard field goal, the Illini had one last chance. McGee passed 14 yards to Hudson and converted a fourth and 10 situation with a big 25 yard pass play to Benn. But shortly thereafter, with the ball on the Mizzou 22 yard line and :58 seconds remaining, McGee chose to throw to Gamble into double coverage near the endzone, and Cornelius Brown intercepted to end Illini chances.
McGee will learn not to throw into double coverage, and Locksley said there was a better place to throw the ball.
"On the interceptions, he's trying to make a play for us. On the last play, he had the hitch open."
Overall, Eddie McGee asserted himself well for his first game. He completed 17 of 31 tosses for 257 yards and one touchdown, and ran for 46 yards and one touchdown. Unfortunately, he also had two lost fumbles and two interceptions. Coaches Zook and Locksley were pleased for the most part.
"He did well," said Zook. "There's no question you can't turn the ball over. He felt bad, but I don't think there's any question he hung in there. Mentally, with the things that happened to him, he could have shut it down but he didn't. He kept fighting, he kept competing. We knew when we recruited him and Juice, we knew they were both good players. It's not surprising to see he had the game he had."
"We made the transition (to McGee) without much hesitation," added Locksley. "The good things Eddie did today we've been seeing most of the summer. He did what a number 2 quarterback is supposed to do. Number one guy goes down and he was still able to execute our offense. Minus the turnovers, I'd say he played a pretty good game. (Competitiveness) is one of the attributes we liked about Eddie when we recruited him. He's one of those guys from inner city D. C., and not a lot phases him. He's a really competitive kid."
There is no quarterback controversy. Barring unanticipated health problems, Juice Williams is still expected to start against Western Illinois next week. But having two quarterbacks ready to go is an asset Illini fans weren't sure they had going into the start of the season.
Final statistics showed two evenly matched teams, with both gaining over 400 yards of total offense. Daniel Dufrene led Illini ball carriers with 58 yards in 6 carries, while Rashard Mendenhall added 42 in 11. Arrelious Benn caught 5 passes for 74 yards in his debut. Kyle Hudson, Brian Gamble, and Jacob Willis each added three receptions.
Dufrene had some previous experience at Vanderbilt and junior college, so he was prepared to play a good game.
"I felt pretty comfortable out there. I got what I expected. The speed we have in practice gets you ready for the games."
The true freshman Gamble showed excellent maturity for having played slot receiver for just a couple weeks.
"The speed of the game is a little fast, but I'm alright. Overall, I feel pretty good except for the loss. That's a good team out there today. We made a few mistakes, but hopefully we will come back in practice and fix them. We have to keep looking forward, not back. Today, we've seen we are a good team, and we've seen we can win some ball games."
Defensively, star linebacker J. Leman led the Illini with 20 total tackles including 10 solos. Justin Harrison and Vontae Davis were also in double figures. Leman took no consolation in his statistics.
"We thought coming in they would run a little more with Temple, and their quarterback is a pretty mobile guy, but they just opened it up passing. We didn't do very well stopping them sometimes. We buckled down some in the second half. We're tired of excuses, tired of turnovers, and tired of not stopping people. It's time to win a ball game. It's not good enough to be close."
Safety Justin Sanders, just returned from a groin pull that limited his practice time, had a big play by causing a fumble that Derek Walker recovered. He added his thoughts on the defense's play in the game.
"We looked like we were getting over the hump, but I guess we're not quite there yet. But you know what, we will get back into that study room and get over that hump. They have a lot of threats on offense, and their quarterback is smart enough to know who to look at and who to go to. I think sometimes we didn't do our job. I know I caught myself trying to help out a little bit, so we just need to play assignment sound football."
By the way, the Marching Illini shared halftime with Missouri's band, but they still had time to play their famous "3 in 1". The music that always inspired Illini fans while watching Chief Illiniwek dance was still present in all its glory despite the absence of the Chief. At first, fans were hesitant to respond, but little by little they got into it. By the end, they were standing and cheering loudly in the Chief's memory.
The Illini are suffering right now, but all hope is not lost. They showed heart, and they demonstrated more athleticism and playmaking ability that in the past. Coach Zook is disconsolate because he knows his efforts are judged on wins and losses. But he and his staff are certainly not willing to give up.
"A loss is a loss," a saddened Zook admitted. "There's no question in my mind we're better. I know we're still on the verge. That's a good football team (Missouri), and it's going to help us down the road. We get into another battle like that and we will learn from this game."