Illinois fans thought this was finally the year their beloved football team would rise up and conquer nemesis Missouri. The team is talented and deep and enjoyed an impressive fall practice. And Missouri lost some of its greatest players to graduation and the NFL. And yet the Tigers proved to be the more efficient outfit.
Coach Ron Zook described accurately the feelings of all Illinois supporters in his postgame press conference.
"I feel sick for these guys. I feel sick for the Illini Nation."
Of course, the Illini Nation felt equally sick about the debacle. Illinois played far differently than everyone expected.
"I sure wouldn't have thought we would play like that," Zook surmised. "That's not the kind of offseason we've had, that's not the kind of camp we've had, it's not the kind of preparation this past week we've had. I'm embarrassed with it, but I'm definitely not getting ready to throw in the towel. I know our guys will come back.
"There are a few things we've got to get our finger on, understand why we played the way we played. We didn't play the way we're capable of playing, and I think that everyone that's followed us knows that. Those guys in the locker room know that. We'll get the things fixed that need to be fixed.
"We didn't execute. We didn't play the way we practiced. Whether that's because we talked about how great a camp we had and thought we would throw it out there and take care of it. It doesn't matter how good a football team you are, how good a talent there is, how good a player you are. It's hard to win a football game."
The Illini had misfortune to begin the game, and it seemed to set the tone for the entire afternoon. Star receiver Arrelious Benn turned his ankle in the first offensive series. And starting running back Jason Ford, subbing for the injured Daniel Dufrene, sprained his ankle also. It seemed to cast a pall over the entire team.
With the offense stagnant, the Missouri Tigers grabbed a quick 10-0 lead after the first quarter. The Illini never recovered. New quarterback starter Blaine Gabbert was the star for Mizzou, completing seven of his first eight passes and leading his team to a field goal before hitting Wes Kemp on a 49 yard touchdown pass.
The Illini tried to make a game of it. Quality runs by quarterback Juice Williams and running back Troy Pollard preceded a great 24 yard pass reception by Florida transfer Jarred Fayson.. However, the drive stalled so Matt Eller kicked a 24 yard field goal to reduce the deficit to 7 points.
The Illinois defense stiffened, limiting the Tigers' running attack and disrupting Gabbert's timing on passes. But Williams' pass tipped off the hands of A.J. Jenkins into the arms of Missouri's Hardy Ricks at the Illini 26 yard line. Grant Ressel hit a 34 yard field goal to stretch the lead to 13-3.
The Illini then mounted one of their best drives of the day. Beginning at their own 25, they combined a couple good runs each by Mikel Leshoure and Williams plus two MU penalties to reach the 20 yard line. But on fourth and one, Williams tripped when center Eric Block stepped on his foot accidently, and Missouri took over on downs.
Gabbert moved the chains with efficient passing to set up a 41 yard Ressel field goal to make it 16-3 at the half.
The second half was dominated by Missouri. Gabbert hit favorite target Danario Alexander with passes covering 39 and 29 yards before completing a three yarder to Jerrell Jackson to complete an 81 yard drive. After two failed Illini possessions, one ending on a fumble by Jeff Cumberland on a promising drive, Gabbert hit Jared Perry wide open over the middle for a 46 yard TD to make the score 30-3.
Fayson missed much of the third quarter with cramps, but Williams hit Jack Ramsey, Fred Sykes, Leshoure, Michael Hoomanawanui and Cumberland with passes to move toward the Missouri end zone. Pollard kept his balance to break a tackle and drive forward for 10 big yards. Leshoure added a nine yard run before scooting over from one yard out to make the score 30-9. Eller missed the extra point.
Missouri countered by driving 74 yards down Illini throats to create the final score. With Illinois now demoralized, the Tigers' dormant running game finally came to life as Derrick Washington sped for 33 yards. Gabbert finished the drive with an 8 yard touchdown run.
Overall, Gabbert was an impressive 25-33 passing for 319 yards, three touchdowns and no turnovers. Alexander caught 10 balls for 132 yards and was a thorn in the Illini side all game. Perry and Kemp each added four receptions for big yardage. Washington and Gabbert were the leading rushers in the game with 61 and 38 yards respectively.
Williams led the Illini with 18 of 28 passing for 179 yards and one interception. Backup Eddie McGee added 36 yards on 4 of 9 passing. Fayson caught four balls for 50 yards, and Leshoure and Sykes added three catches each. Leshoure and Pollard each contributed 38 yards net rushing, while Williams added 27.
Starting his first game as an Illini, SAM linebacker Ian Thomas led all tacklers with 13, including one tackle for loss. Middle linebacker Martez Wilson added 9 tackles, while defensive backs Tavon Wilson and Garrett Edwards added 7 each. Tavon Wilson had 1.5 TFL. Travon Bellamy had two TFL, and Dere Hicks, Doug Pilcher, Clay Nurse and Josh Brent had one each.
Sometimes, when a game is played is as important as how it is played. Everything pointed up for Illinois this past week. In fact, Zook felt they were ready to play Friday. Perhaps the game was one day too late.
"I thought we were ready to play yesterday. Everything was almost too good to be true. The focus and so forth. But obviously, we weren't ready to play today."
While Zook was shocked by the way his Illini played Saturday, he gave deserved praise to Gary Pinkel and his Mizzou team. They played error-free ball and took advantage of their opportunities.
"My hat's off to them. Coach Pinkel's done a great job of getting them ready to play. They played well. We said all week that Gabbert was good. He had a banner day today.
"We knew Missouri was gonna be a good football team. Those new starters have a lot of experience. And they did play well. They were prepared, and they deserve all the credit. We did not play the way we're capable of playing, and that's our concern."
There are still 11 games to play, and Zook reminded the team they lost the first game of their Rose Bowl season two years ago. But he knows the problems encountered Saturday must be fixed quickly.
"They know we're a better football team than this. It's up to us to make sure we get that fixed. I don't know if we thought it was just gonna happen because we were a better football team or what. But you'd better be ready to play every single football game.
"In the game of football, you're gonna have adversity. How you come back from adversity is gonna determine the kind of success you're gonna have.
"I told the team, we're not gonna go undefeated this year. Let's just take one game at a time. It's gonna be important we learn from this game and get better."