Mizzou vs. Illinois ... It is ON!

Ask most Missouri fans who is their most bitter rival, the obvious answer will be Kansas. However, ask diehard Tiger fans in St. Louis, and many of them will answer Illinois. The Missouri Tigers will look to make it two in a row Saturday in St. Louis vs. the Fighting Illini from Champaign.

There really is no need to hype this game. Any Missouri v. Illinois takes on a life of its own.

It was Missouri who was the underdog last year facing the ranked Illinois team whose last game the previous year was against LSU in the Sugar Bowl.

Missouri featured a retooled offensive line, seven new starters on defense, and an untested redshirt freshman at quarterback named Brad Smith.

The talk on the Illinois message boards was completely dismissive of the young Tigers. The only question was how badly Illinois would pound the hapless Tigers in this warm up game.

However, it was Missouri that came out on its opening drive that took the ball straight down the field and scored the first touchdown.

Brad Smith was masterful, weaving and darting around the dome carpet that day. Smith looked like a seasoned veteran who was the hunter instead of the prey.

"I expected to do well - I always expect to do well - so that wasn't a big surprise to me. I just wanted to go out and win the game, first of all, and then some good things happened to us and me," said Smith.

Even stoic Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel was taken back by the depth of fan response to the Illinois game last year.

"The emotion of this game last year, in the dome, surprised me. It was really a bowl-type atmosphere. When you have a packed house and a significant number of fans representing each team, it's real exciting. We'll have to watch some of our younger players and those that haven't played a lot. They have to be able to maintain their poise and focus even with all the excitement and energy," he said.

While Missouri may have sneaked up on Illinois last year, it is clear that that won't be the case in 2004. Pinkel is concerned about several facets of this year's Illini squad.

"We will see a great football team. Their quarterback (Jon Beutjer) is terrific - at the end of last year he was throwing almost 60 percent completions. He's a great thrower, and they probably feel very good that they have an established, high-level quarterback. Their offense is very experienced - they were in the top 15 in the nation last year in total offense. Defensively they play a pressure, man coverage, attacking style. So the challenges are certainly there for us," he said.

Smith believes that the key for Missouri on Saturday is just playing Missouri football, "We're not going to do anything differently than what we do every week. We have to prepare ourselves as a team, and go out and do what we do. We're not going to change us, we just have to make it happen no matter what other teams do. Our focus is on us, and what Missouri can do to win the game," he said.

And what of senior tailback Zach Abron, who has been battling injuries during training camp this year?

"I'm feeling really good. The training staff did a great job working on me, I feel good now and I'll be ready to go come Saturday," he said.

Along with Abron, expect to see a healthy dose of star newcomer, Damien Nash in the backfield vs. Illinois. Nash, who has not played football for almost two years due to a knee injury, will be motivated to play well in front of his hometown fans.

Of course, the primary questions related to Missouri's football program rest on the defensive side of the ball. Pinkel isn't worried about fielding a defense with so many new faces on it, because those players are better than what the Tigers had last year.

"We had some severe issues on defense when (the coaching staff) got here. The numbers were such that we're still digging out of them," Pinkel said. "If you look at the back end of our defense (safeties and corners) we have different players than there were a year ago, and that's good. We thought Calvin Washington had great potential last year, but we redshirted him and now he's starting at corner. Shirdonya Mitchell has a chance to be an outstanding corner. We have two new safeties in Nino Williams and David Overstreet. Dedrick Harrington was a highly recruited player who didn't play last year because of injuries, but now he's starting at rover. The athleticism over there is significantly different that what it's been in the past, and that's good," he said.

The sold out game will be on ABC regional television, but will be shown to the largest area of the country. The game starts at 11 am central time.

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