They gave up a ton of yards on the ground, even more in the air. They broke down and gave up big plays. But as they lined up with just seconds left in the fourth quarter and a seven-point lead, none of that mattered. The only important thing that mattered was keeping Illinois, lined up at Missouri's 23-yard line, out of the orange-and-white end zone. And that they did.
And a newcomer, free safety Nino Williams, came through. Williams stopped Illinois quarterback Jon Beutjer's last two passes, and Missouri escaped the Edward Jones Dome with a 22-15 win. "It was mostly just vision and breaking on the quarterback," Williams said. "It was time to pull the trigger, and I pulled it successfully."
The offense, firing blanks for most of the game, pulled its trigger in the fourth quarter, too. After Illinois went up 15-14 with 10:36 to play, the Tigers took the ball at their own 22-yard line.
With the help of a 17-yard Zack Abron run, the Tigers advanced passed midfield, but faced a third-and-11 at the Illinois 46. Smith threw a screen pass to Abron, who juked his way for 19 yards.
Photo: Becking. Abron surges with help from his friends.
"That's probably the biggest play of the game in my head," Pinkel said.
Seven plays later, Smith found Darius Outlaw wide open in the back of the end zone, and Missouri went up for good.
Smith scored on the most unorthodox of two-point conversions to give the Tigers the 22-15 lead with 4:12 left.
Because of a false snap, Missouri had to try the conversion from the 8-yard line. While the offensive lined up 5 yards left of the ball, tight end J.D. McCoy lined up as a snapper. Brad Smith lined up behind him with Sean Coffey and Darius Outlaw on each side. With the defense scrambling to figure it out what is commonly known as the "Swinging Gate" formation, Sean Coffey cleared out the corner back on that side and Smith took the snap and sprinted into the right corner of the end zone.
"We tried it in practice," Pinkel said. "It's designed to three or four yards, not eight. We thought if we could catch them off guard and kind of freeze their feet a little big, and with Brad's speed, he could get around the corner. It was a huge football play."
To say the least. The two-point conversion forced Illinois into a situation where they had to score a touchdown, plus convert an extra point try just to tie.
After both teams went three-and-out, Illinois got the ball back with 2:03 to play on their own 10. The defense kept the Illini in front, but Beutjer chipped away toward the goal. On a third-and-2 at the Illinois 29, Beutjer hit Lonnie Hurst on the sideline for 26 yards.
With 28 seconds left, Illinois had advanced to the Missouri 29.
"We're going in knowing they have to score now," cornerback Michael Harden said. "We thrive on that. We just came up with big plays and made big tackles."
Williams shut the door at the end. Beutjer tried to hit tight end Melvin Bryant near the end zone on the last two plays, but Williams had Bryant covered tight on both, and they both fell incomplete.
It was that kind of day for the defense: it certainly wasn't spectacular, it simply made the plays it needed to: stopping a fourth down, a two-point conversion and a punt. Timely plays made Illinois' 411 yards of offense irrelevant. The Tigers won for the first time under Pinkel when the opponent gained more yards than them.
"When you hold them to field goals and then only one touchdown, that's not bad defense,' Pinkel said. "There are five players that started Division I football for the first time.
"For living on the field, I thought we did some good things," Pinkel said of his defense.
The defense had to live on the field because the offense had its troubles until the last drive, including six three-and-outs. Missouri had only 20 yards after the first quarter and only 103 at halftime.
Smith finished with 102 yards passing and 66 yards rushing, his second-worst career total yards output. He did complete 12-of-18 passes, though, with two touchdowns. Abron rushed for 60 yards on 21 carries.
Illinois scored first with a field goal a little more than six minutes into the game. On the Illini's next possession, Missouri made a special teams play that forced the momentum in its favor.
As Illinois punter Matt Minnes received the snap, Missouri's Michael Harden had already gotten to him off the corner. Minnes had to pull the ball back in, and Derrick Ming tackled him, giving the Tigers the ball at the Illinois 3-yard line. After Brad Smith's dive on third down fell inches short, the Tigers ran a pitch to Zack Abron on fourth-and-one. With good blocking, Abron went untouched for the score.
The Tigers scored again with 5:31 left on a 14-yard touchdown pass from Smith to McCoy over the middle.
Illinois made it 14-6 on a controversial field goal with seven seconds left in the half. With 16 seconds left, Beutjer hit Carey Davis out of the backfield to get the Illini to the Missouri 26 yard line. The officials called timeout for a measurement, even though it seemed to be clearly short by close to a yard. After the officials called a penalty on Illinois coach Ron Turner for being on the field, the Illini still had time to get the field goal unit out, as the clock remained stopped. John Gockman made the 48-yarder, the second of his three on the day.
While Missouri lost the battle for statistics, the important battle was won by the Tigers. Missouri improved its record to 2-0 vs. Illinois during the Pinkel era, and 13-7 vs. the Illini overall.
Missouri next faces Ball State.