Missouri is accustomed to beating Illinois in football. The Illini have made a game out of it most of the Arch Rivalry series, but last season was a one-sided massacre. Overall, MU leads the series 16-7, including the last five contests. They have won 8 straight openers and 17 straight regular season nonconference games. They are heavy favorites against the Illini with good reason.
Mizzou has most of its weapons back for an encore even though starting tailback Derrick Washington is suspended.
Quarterback Blaine Gabbert tore apart the Illini last year, throwing for three touchdowns and running for a fourth. The 6'-5", 230 pound junior totalled 3593 passing yards in 2009 with 24 touchdowns and only 9 interceptions. He was 2nd in Big 12 and 29th nationally in pass efficiency. And he ranked 11th in the NCAA in total offense with 292.08 yards per game.
Gabbert is not just a passer. Despite his bulk he is an agile runner who can hurt you with his feet. He can outrace defenders and plow through them. His running was slowed last year by a bum ankle, but he is healthy now. A five-star athlete out of high school, Missouri faithful see him as an eventual first round NFL draft choice.
Gabbert is backed by several top-rated passers. However, true freshman James Franklin, a 6-2, 223 pound Texan, beat them all out for second string during fall practice.
The Tigers use a quick passing game that prevents pressure on the quarterback, but Gabbert has plenty of line protection when needed. Four fifths of the line starters from last year return, including Rimington Watch candidate Tim Barnes, a 6'-4", 300 pound senior.
Tackles Elvis Fisher, (6'-5", 295), a junior with 27 straight starts under his belt, and junior Dan Hoch (6'-7", 315), who started as a freshman provide plenty of talent and experience. Junior Austin Wuebbels (6'-4", 300) returns at right guard. Junior Jayson Palmgren, (6'-2", 305) is starting his first game, but he has played in 23 previous contests.
With a line that talented and experienced, Gabbert should have plenty of time to shred an Illini defense decimated by injuries. But don't expect the Tigers to ignore the run just because their top runner will miss the game.
Right now, quick sophomore Kendial Lawrence (5'-9", 190) is listed alongside two-time letterwinner De'Vion Moore (5'-9", 195) as the starter at running back. Lawrence totaled 218 yards as a true freshman, while Moore added 258 yards in 2009. Moore is recovering from injury sustained in camp, so his availability may be limited. 180 pound freshmen Henry Josey and Marcus Murphy are backups.
The Tigers lost their top receiver to graduation, but their dynamic offense attracts plenty of receivers. Among those who may see playing time include junior Jerrell Jackson (6'-1", 190), who caught 37 passes for 458 yards and 2 TD's last year. He is listed as available despite breaking a bone in his wrist three weeks ago.
Other wideout starters are T.J. Moe (6'-0", 200), a sophomore who sat out last year with injury, and Wes Kemp, (6'-4", 220), a junior who burned the Illini in 2009 with 77 yards and a touchdown in just four catches. Others who may be on the receiving end of Gabbert passes include L'Damian Washington (6'-4", 190), Rolandis Woodland (6'-3", 200), Gahn McGaffie (5'-1"0, 180), Bud Sasser (6'-3", 200 freshman), Brandon Gerau (6'-0", 175) and freshman Marcus Lucas (6'-5", 205).
The Tigers have a history of utilizing tall tight ends, and they feel good about the ones they have again this year. Michael Egnew (6'-6", 235) is a promising two-time letterwinner starting his first game. Andrew Jones (6'-5", 240) also has two letters and backs Egnew. Freshman Eric Waters (6'-4", 235) may also see action.
Missouri lost superstar middle linebacker Sean Weatherspoon to graduation, but it still has strength everywhere on defense. Along the line, defensive end Aldon Smith (6'-5", 260) dominates. The sophomore led all freshmen nationally in quarterback sacks with 11.5, and he had 19 tackles for loss. He was a 1st team freshman All-American. He is backed capably by lettermen Marcus Malbrough (6'-5", 240) and Brad Madison (6'-4", 255).
Junior Jacquies Smith (6'-4", 255) forced two turnovers and scored two touchdowns last season from the other defensive end. Redshirt freshman Michael Sam (6'-3", 245) lacks only experience. He had five sacks in one fall scrimmage. They are joined by tackle Terrell Resonno (6'-5", 295) and two-time letterman nose guard Dominique Hamilton (6'-5", 305).
Replacing Weatherspoon are two seniors with three letters each to their credit. Luke Lambert (6'-3", 230) and Jeff Gettys (6'-3", 230) are capable if not outstanding. Sophomore Zaviar Gooden (6'-2", 225) lettered last year and gets his first start at WILL, and three year letterman Andrew Gachkar (6'-3", 228) was the second leading tackler last year from his SAM spot.
The defensive backfield is highly experienced. Senior cornerback Carl Gettis (5'-11", 195) has started 37 games and is also the punt returner. The opposite corner is manned capably by three year letterman Kevin Rutland (6'-0", 190). Junior safety Kenji Jackson (5'-10", 195) has two letters at strong safety, and senior free safety Jasper Simmons (6'-1", 205) had 73 tackles last year. He and Murphy will also return kicks.
As potent as the Mizzou offense is, it also has a great weapon in place kicker Grant Ressel (6'-1", 190), who set an NCAA season accuracy record in 2009 and was named 1st team All-American by "Sports Illustrated." Punter Matt Grabner, an Ole Miss transfer, has been inconsistent in drills.
Last year the Missouri defense gave up a lot of yardage through the air, and its overall statistics were not highly ranked nationally. But with the offense scoring so rapidly, it was on the field a long time. Overall, Missouri is a quality opponent, and Illinois will have its hands full Saturday morning.