InsideMizzou.com Inside Analysis: MU-Illinois
The season opener is important for every team in the country because it can set the tone and define expectations for the rest of the season. But few games this weekend are as important to both sides as this one.
For Mizzou, it's simply a must-win game. The Tigers, as we all know by know, have been picked to win the Big 12 North and are entering the season with the highest expectations here in decades. A loss to a lesser team here wouldn't affect their conference championship hopes, but would put a massive dent in what is hoped will be a magical season.
Illinois, meantime, doesn't have such high expectations. But there's no shortage of pressure on head coach Ron Zook, who has earned acclaim for his recruiting prowess -- he brought in 22 of 24 players who started for Florida's national title team last season -- but has gone 4-19 in his first two seasons in Champaign, including wins against Eastern Illinois and San Jose St. Entering his third year at UI, the honeymoon is over and those around the program expect some of that heralded talent to translate into wins. His seat gets a bit warmer when you consider UI has invested in him in the form of a $130 million stadium upgrade, and fans have begun buying back into the program in the form of increased season ticket sales.
Can Illinois win the running game?
Barring a slew of Missouri turnovers, it's the only way UI can win. Mizzou has the top returning rusher in the Big 12 in Tony Temple, but Illinois running game was surprisingly good last year, leading the run-heavy Big 10 with 188.8 yards per game. Bruising 224-pound junior Rashard Mendenhall averaged a whopping 8.2 yards per carry last year.
This is especially important for Illinois. The Illini has an unproven quarterback in Juice Williams, who completed an abysmal 39.5 percent of his passes last year, and are facing one of the nation's prolific passing games. Despite Zook's laughable statement this week that the teams have similar talent on offense, he knows his team will need to slow the pace in order to have a chance.
"You just try to slow them down. You're not going to stop them, obviously. Our plan is to not give up the big play. You want to mix things up, give them different looks if you can, keep them in front of us and run to the football," Zook said.
With beefy and talented interior linemen Lorenzo Williams and Ziggy Hood, Missouri may be capable of keeping Mendenhall from doing too much damage up the middle. But Illinois has a proven middle three on the offensive line, and we all know how MU struggled against the run last year.
Williams presents another threat. He's fast and athletic, and if MU's pass rush fails to materialize – another main concern – he's capable of scrambling outside for big chunks. Mizzou's linebackers need to make plays and the defensive backs must support against the run early and often.
"You have to be able to contain him and know where he is at all times on the field. That's easier said than done," MU head coach Gary Pinkel said of Williams.
They also must blanket true freshman wideout Arrelius Benn, the No. 12 recruit in the country last year. See the scouting report on Benn below…
Will the Mizzou attack miss a beat?
Mizzou's offense was fantastic last year, rating eighth nationally. But often times it takes a game or two to get back into that rhythm, especially for an offense that relies so much on exactly that – rhythm and timing.
The offense, though, didn't appear to have skipped a beat during fall camp. Another factor in MU's favor here lies in the fact that most of its playmakers – Temple, quarterback Chase Daniel, tight ends Marting Rucker and Chase Coffman and wide receiver Will Franklin – have lots of experience.They know what to do and what to expect. The Mizzou attack has an embarrassment of riches.
" A lot of people want to throw numbers out there, but those people forget that our offense has so many weapons. There might be some games that I will only get five to six carries, but I have to make those the best five or six carries that I get. I just need to do what's best for this team, so we can get better to win," Temple said.
Illinois' defense returns virtually everybody and will provide a challenge. Linebacker J. Leman is among the best in the country and led the Big 10 with 152 tackles last year. Sophomore cornerbacks Travon Bellamy and Vontae Davis are gifted athletes who won't be afraid to press up against Franklin, Danario Alexander, Jeremy Maclin and Co.
Former high school sprinting champion Davis is the younger and faster brother of San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, who clocked a 4.38 40-yard dash at the combine last year and was taken sixth in the draft. The younger Davis is a prototype corner and could be joining him in the NFL before his four years of college are up. Don't be surprised to see him make a big play at some point Saturday.
I wouldn't be surprised [if Davis goes pro early], I really wouldn't," Dunbar High (D.C.) coach Craig Jeffries told InsideMizzou.com. "He's a lot like Vernon in that he's so quick and so explosive. His instincts and his desire is what you want to see in a cornerback. He can cover and he's not afraid to come up and hit you."
Sophomore Alexander could be the X-factor here. His size and speed make him a tough cover for anyone, and he was fantastic during camp. If Davis covers Franklin, look for Daniel to try and get the ball to Alexander often. Bellamy, though talented, has been nursing a shoulder injury, and he would give up four inches to Alexander. Illinois may stick Davis on Alexander, though, in an effort to negate MU's big-play potential.
Mizzou's tight ends are bound to make plays; there's no avoiding it, not when you have the top tandem in the nation. Temple will get his yards as well. But how good, exactly, will Illinois defense be? Keep in mind, the Illini held top-ranked Ohio State to 29 yards on 30 plays during the second half of a seven-point loss last year.
Special Teams Lean in MU's Favor
Mizzou appears to have a crucial advantage on special teams. While Illinois kicker Jason Reda (15 of 19 field goals, 24 of 24 on extra points last year) and MU's Jeff Wolfert (18 of 20, 45 of 45) could cancel each other out, Zook said late this week three players were still vying for the punting job. Sophomore Kyle Yelton was ranked last in the Big 10 last year with 37.4 yards per boot.
Zook's hardly inspiring assessment of his punting game: "We're probably going to take two punters with us. But I think that we are much better in protection and much better in coverage."
Missouri's Adam Crossett, conversely, is coming off an impressive fall camp. Field position is MU's for the taking. Jeremy Maclin is expected to be a threat in the return game. Illinois return game ranked in the middle of the Big 10 pack last year, and the Illini doesn't have a returner as explosive as Maclin.
Scouting Report: Arrelious Benn
It's unusual for a team to pin so many of its expectations on a true freshman, but Benn is not your typical freshman. Rated the No. 2 wide receiver recruit in the nation last year, he was the subject of a heated recruiting battle most believed would come down to Notre Dame and Florida State. But Illinois offensive coordinator/recruiter extraordinaire Mike Locksley swooped in and plucked Benn from Locksley's native Washington D.C.
Benn has size (6-2, 215), speed, athleticism and strength. He runs precise routes, wins 50-50 balls with incredible frequency, and has the muscle to beat up on many a cornerback. He's added about 10 pounds of muscle since enrolling at Illinois last December and seems to be recovered from a shoulder sprain he suffered during camp. Mizzou's Darnell Terrell will be tasked with slowing the precocious pass catcher.
Benn's high school coach, Craig Jeffries: "He has the size and speed and athleticism, and the thing is, he looks like a strong safety. He's really physical and very athletic … We came to just expect something unbelievable.
Benn talks Benn: "I like to think of myself as a combination of a deep-threat and possession receiver. I'm physical, fast and I'm very good at getting yards after a catch. I'm not a catch and drop receiver. I can take a hit. My strengths are definitely my size and my speed. My physical body features can be quite intimidating. I want to work on my route running and knowing when to change speeds."
InsideMizzou.com Prediction: We'll stick with our score prediction from our preview issue of Inside Mizzou Magazine -- Mizzou 31, Illinois 17. Illinois makes a game out of it early thanks to a few scrambling plays by Williams and Benn, but MU catches its stride in the second half, taking the elad and forcing Williams to throw from the pocket. Rucker catches two touchdowns from Daniel and true freshman Carl Gettis gets his first career interception.
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