Illinois head coach Ron Zook was understandably frustrated over his team's inability to defeat Missouri in his tenure, but he saw encouraging signs.
"That was a pretty good offensive football team that we played today. In my opinion, we played the best against them since we've been here. It wasn't good enough, but still we did a pretty good job against them.
"There's a lot of good things, there really is. We've got to play sixty minutes and hopefully build on that. It's supposed to hurt right now, we all hurt. But we've got a chance to be a good football team, we really do. I think right now they believe it even more. We've just got to go back to work."
Illinois got off to a quick start. After stopping Mizzou without a first down, redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase led the Illini on a long time-consuming drive to the Missouri three yard line. A false start stopped the momentum, but Derek Dimke hit a 21 yard field goal to put the Illini on the board. It fit the game plan perfectly, controlling clock and keeping the MU offense off the field.
After Missouri tied the game at three, the Illini went on an impressive 82 yard drive in 8 plays. A.J. Jenkins grabbed a short Scheelhaase pass over the middle and raced to the corner of the end zone to give the Illini a 10-3 lead. The big play in the drive was a 42 yard burst down the sideline by Mikel Leshoure.
It appeared the half would end without additional scoring. But getting the ball back under the one minute mark, Scheelhaase maneuvered the Illini into position for a last second field goal attempt. He ran for 5 and 13 yards before making a key scramble for 20 more to put the ball on the 38 yard line. Dimke was perfect on the 52 yard attempt for a 13-3 halftime lead and excellent momentum.
Unfortunately, the Illini had little to cheer about second half. Missouri's star defensive end Aldon Smith, tough to block all day, sacked Scheelhaase to force a punt to start the second half. Blaine Gabbert led the Tiger offense on a 77 yard drive for a touchdown to get them back in the game. T.J. Moe, who caught 13 passes for 101 yards on the day, scored on a five yard reception.
The Illini finally earned a first down on its third possession of the second half when Scheelhaase hit Jarred Fayson for 7 yards. But they could advance no farther, putting their defense back on the field with minimal rest. Starting from their own 31, Gabbert methodically mixed runs and throws for a 10 play drive culminating in a pass to tall tight end Michael Egnew from the six yard line to give the Tigers a lead they wouldn't relinquish.
Illinois had two more three and outs before Grant Ressel hit a 27 yard field goal to make the score 20-13 Missouri. Leshoure burst out for 26 big yards to give the Illini better field position, but Scheelhaase threw one of his three interceptions on the day to snuff out the rally. The Illini failed to generate any offense the rest of the way, and a Ressel field goal in the last minute gave the Tigers their final margin.
The Illini played far above expectations on defense throughout, but fatigue and a relentless Tiger offense took their toll. Both sophomore Justin Green and redshirt freshman Steve Hull, moved from offense within the last two weeks, played extensively and asserted themselves well in the secondary.
"They both played extremely well," Zook said. "I thought Steve Hull was magnificent, for all the longer he's been back there, as well as Justin. I thought Travon Bellamy played well there (in the secondary). We've just got to stay healthy, and those guys will keep getting better."
The defense needed help from the offense second half, but it wasn't forthcoming. Missouri realized Scheelhaase would use a ball control offense with short passes to compliment a running game. It brought more defenders up near the line of scrimmage and switched alignments just prior to the snap, confusing the rookie quarterback and limiting his runs and short passes.
In some ways, this game reminded of the 2007 contest against Missouri. Then redshirt freshman Eddie McGee committed four turnovers in a reserve role that ultimately gave the Tigers their winning edge. Scheelhaase lost one fumble and had three interceptions that stopped Illini momentum. Still, Zook was pleased with his overall effort.
"I thought he played well. Obviously with the turnovers, you can't have those things. But sometimes those things are gonna happen. We have to live with it.
"One good thing, and I've said this all along about Nathan, he's a guy who will learn from it. He won't make those same mistakes next week and the next week and the next week. That's the exciting thing about being around him.
"No one works any harder than Nathan. He'll get it fixed. You can't lay this game on him. Our other guys had to step up, but we had instances where they didn't."
Gabbert ended with 34 completions in 48 attempts for 281 yards and two touchdowns. Egnew grabbed 10 balls for 60 yards, Jerrel Jackson had 4 for 50 yards, and Wes Kemp caught three for 46 yards. The Tiger running game was limited, with De'Vion Moore the only one with significant yardage. He gained 78 yards in 16 carries.
For the Illini, Scheelhaase was 9 of 23 passing for 81 yards and one touchdown. Only 11 of his yards were registered in the second half. He ran for an additional 76 yards in 16 carries. Leshoure gained 112 yards on the ground in 20 carries. As a team, the Illini gained 281 net yards while Missouri gained 379.
Defensively, Ian Thomas had 13 tackles including 2 tackles for loss. Bellamy recorded 12 tackles including one TFL, while Martez Wilson, playing his first game in a year, added 11 tackles including two TFL and .5 sacks. Nathan Bussey had two straight TFL to stop a drive, and Corey Liuget added 3 tackles for loss.
After losing six in a row to Missouri, Illini fans have little to be happy about. But there were encouraging signs. The Illini fought for 4 quarters and gained Mizzou's respect. The UI defense proved it has made big improvements in a year under new defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. And the offense will undoubtedly improve as Scheelhaase gains experience.
Zook said basically the same thing.
"We're way way farther ahead than what we've been. We've got to get better. Other people are tired of hearing it, and I'm tired of saying it. But we're gonna do it this year."