Missouri, Daniel Tough Opening Opponent

The Fighting Illini football team kicks off its 2008 season at the Arch Rivalry game with the Missouri Tigers Saturday at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. Hopes are high for the Illini, but their first opponent is ranked in the top five nationally and has one of the most explosive teams in college football.

Quarterback Chase Daniel leads Mizzou's high-scoring offense. The 6'-0", 225 Daniel was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy last year and returns for his senior season. He is one of the most accurate passers in the NCAA, and his decision-making and quick feet in the Tigers' spread offense makes him nearly impossible to pressure.

Daniel threw for 4306 yards and 33 touchdowns in 2007, completing a whopping 68.2% of his passes. He averaged 307.6 yards passing per game. He also had a net gain of 253 yards rushing after subtracting sacks.

Missouri lost tight end Martin Rucker and tailback Tony Temple to graduation, and receiver Danario Alexander is out with knee surgery, but there are many replacements waiting for the spotlight.

Tight end Chase Coffman is a 6'-6", 245 pounder who is agile and talented. He caught 52 balls last season. Chase has now recovered from a broken finger, and his tall frame will be one of Daniel's prime targets. He is backed up by Jon Gissinger.

Tiger fans are excited about running back Derrick Washington. The sophomore packs 215 pounds on his 5'-11" frame and has the potential to exceed Temple's marks. Derrick averaged 5.1 yards per carry while also catching 10 passes for 70 yards in limited action in 2007. If he has the pass receiving ability claimed, he will provide an excellent outlet for Daniel should the need arise.

Missouri may use four or even five receivers at a time, and they have a bunch of good ones. Probably the best is sophomore Jeremy Maclin. The 6'-1", 200 pound speedster caught 80 passes in his rookie year for 1055 yards. He also gained 375 yards rushing with an impressive 7.4 yard average and scored four touchdowns.

And Maclin is a threat to return kickoffs and punts all the way for touchdowns. He averaged 12.3 yards per punt return and scored twice, and he averaged 24.2 yards on kickoff returns, returning one for a touchdown. Maclin ended 2007 with an average of 198.3 all purpose yards per game.

The Illini will be hard pressed to contain Maclin, as he will be as important to Missouri's passing game as Arrelious Benn is to Illinois. Other receivers of note include Tommy Saunders (6'-0", 210), who caught 41 passes last year; Earl Goldsmith (5'-9", 200); La'Roderick Thomas (6'-0", 195); Jared Perry (6'-1", 180), who had 13 receptions in 2007; and Blake May (5'11", 190). Rumors suggest Perry may not be 100% by game time, but replacements are available.

Another potent weapon for the Tigers is placekicker Jeff Wolfort. Amazingly, Wolfort has never missed a field goal or extra point in Big 12 action and has converted 90 straight kicks. If he lacks extreme distance, he makes up for it with extreme accuracy.

The other major graduation losses on offense were in the line. Missouri will have a couple newcomers in their line this year. Redshirt freshman Elvis Fisher (6'-5", 290) may have the biggest task playing the extremely important left tackle spot. Recent word out of Columbia is that true freshman Dan Hoch, a 6'-7", 295 pounder out of Iowa, is improving rapidly and may get playing time against the Illini.

Sophomore Tim Barnes will be the new center. But junior Kurtis Gregory (6'-5", 305) and seniors Ryan Madison (6'-5", 305) and Colin Brown (6'-8", 325) are returning veterans. Whatever weaknesses they may have in the offensive line, all they have to do is sustain their blocks for a brief period since Daniel can release his passes too quickly for most pass rushes.

Illini middle linebacker Brit Miller has great respect for Mizzou's offense.

"Chase Daniel gets better day after day, he uses Jeremy Maclin in every way possible. Having him out there as a threat, we have to know where he is. Chase Coffman is a returning tight end who will catch 5 yard passes against you all day. He has patience, he's not in a hurry.

"Chase Daniel is kind of the same way, so they have a great combination there as well. They have athletes all over, and they use every inch of the field. That's the kind of opponent that can drive a defense crazy."

Those who watched the Illinois-Missouri game last year will remember Mizzou's strong, hard-hitting defensive unit. That unit returns 10 of 11 starters. Those who underestimated the Tigers' defense last year cannot do that again. They are battle-tested and talented.

There are three experienced seniors on the defensive line, led by Stryler Sulak (6'-5", 250), Tommy Chavis (6'-2", 255), and tackle Ziggy Hood (6'-4", 295). Junior Jaron Baston (6'-1", 300) takes over at the other tackle spot.

Middle linebacker Brock Christopher (6'-2", 235) and weakside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (6'-1", 235) are both considered standouts. They both finished 2007 with more than 100 tackles each. Van Alexander is listed as a starter at strongside linebacker but may sit out the game with an injury. Luke Lambert (6'-3", 225) is considered Alexander's equal and will fill in capably.

Three of Missouri's four defensive backs are experienced seniors. Free safety William Moore (6'-1", 230) terrorized Illinois last year and is probably their star. He also accumulated over 100 tackles last year.

He is joined by strong safety Justin Garrett (6'-2", 200) and cornerback Castine Bridges (6'-2", 210). The other cornerback will be manned by talented sophomore Carl Gettis (5'-11", 200). This is a large, muscular, hard-hitting secondary.

Illini quarterback Juice Williams remembers Missouri's defense well, having been knocked out of last year's game with a vicious blow to the helmet. His analysis is succinct: "Fast, athletic, they tackle the ball well, and they play with a lot of confidence."

Missouri expects to defeat Illinois and compete for a National Championship. If they are anywhere near as good as they say, they will be tough to beat.

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