Prized Pig: Brown leads MU to Dramatic Win!
Senior safety Pig Brown had already done his part to guarantee Missouri victory Saturday against Illinois, but in one of the wilder games we may see all season, nothing seemed enough for Mizzou to close the door on the resurgent Illini – not even Brown's 101-yard fumble return or Mizzou's 24-point, third-quarter lead.
But with MU clinging to its once-cushy lead and the waning moments ticking from the clock at the Edward Jones Dome, Mizzou's undersized, oddly nicknamed senior strong safety made a play to preserve Missouri's lofty expectation for the season that had begun four heartburn-filled hours before: he leaped and intercepted Illinois back-up quarterback Edward McGee in the endzone, clinching a 40-34 victory that, for MU fans, was equal parts exhilarating and torturous.
"It was an interesting game," Mizzou head coach Gary Pinkel said, a wry look on his face. "We were lucky to come out of here with the win."
On the other hand, Illinois (0-1) was lucky to be in the game. Mizzou's defense dominated the first half, scoring 16 points off of three first-half turnovers and helping a lead that reached 24 points in the third quarter. Starting quarterback Juice Williams was injured early in the second quarter after a helmet-to-helmet collision with MU cornerback Hardy Ricks and Redshirt freshman McGee was wildly inconsistent in his place, balancing every positive play with a turnover or wild throw.
But the Illini never went away, and MU made its share of mistakes to help their cause.
"We might be in a lot of games like that this year," said MU quarterback Chase Daniel, in a statement that will have Tigers fans scrambling for the Rolaids coupons in Sunday's newspapers.
If not for Brown's heroics, though, some might find themselves medicating in a completely different manor.
"He made two gamebreaker players," Daniel said. "He won it for us."
Illinois got onto the scoreboard first when sophomore cornerback Vontae Davis blocked Adam Crossett's punt, scooped the ball and fell into the endzone barely six minutes into the game. But Mizzou, which got a block of its own on the ensuing extra point, answered by marching 80 yards, the final one coming on a fourth-down pass from Chase Daniel to Chase Coffman.
Still, MU's offense continued to sputter, and Illinois was poised to re-take the lead mid-way through the second quarter when sophomore linebacker SeanWeatherspoon blindsided McGee and knocked the ball loose. Brown scooped it in stride and raced 101 yards in the other direction for a 13-6 lead.
"I was a little winded," Brown said, "but I set into instincts."
Daniel led Mizzou on a 69-yard scoring drive late in the half, punctuated when he hit a wide open Will Franklin on a two-yard slant pattern. Mizzou freshman Andrew Gachkar then ripped the ball from Illinois kick returner Chris Duvault, Connell Davis recovered and Jeff Wolfert made a 27-yard field goal, giving MU 20-6 halftime lead that appeared likely to ballon into a blowout.
And early in the second half, it seemed precisely that would happen. But only for few frenzied minutes.
Illinois closed to within 10 points when running back Rashard Mendenhall gashed the Mizzou interior defense for a 25-yard touchdown. But Mizzou redshirt freshman Jeremy Maclin scored twice in the next six minutes – the first two touchdowns of his college career – on a 25-yard pass from Daniel and a sensational 66-yard punt return.
In a blink, it seemed the Tigers were well on the way to a laugher of a victory: Mizzou 37, Illinois 14.
Not so fast.
Illinois faced little resistance from Missouri's defense on a 72-yard scoring drive capped by McGee's 16-yard run, after which MU wideout Danario Alexander made a mistake that wouldn't soon be forgotten had MU lost this game: he coughed up the ball while attempting to take a reverse handoff, and instead of falling on the loose ball, he tried scooping it while running.
Illinois' Antonio Steele fell on the ball and McGee took advantage of Mizzou's unsettled defense on the next play by lofting a pretty 41-yard pass over the head of MU cornerback Darnell Terrell and into the hands of a streaking Kyle Hudson, who needed only to hold onto the earthbound spiral on his way into the endzone.
Jersey collars tightening: Mizzou 37, Illinois 27.
Seconds into the fourth quarter, Daniel was hit by Illinois defensive back Justin Sanders while cocking to throw. The ball popped loose and was recovered by Illinois lineman Derek Walker, and two plays later Mendenhall scored from four yards out. It was Illinois' third touchdown in barely five minutes.
Now one mistake from being Sleepless in St. Louis: Mizzou 37, Illinois 34.
"I think we played pretty good," Missouri defensive tackle Lorenzo Williams said, "other than that third quarter."
Jeff Wolfert kicked a field goal to stretch the lead to six with a little more than eight minutes left, but he missed a 49-yarder wide left with four minutes left, giving McGee one last chance to pull a shocker in his college debut. And when he connected with touted freshman Arrelious Benn for a 25-yard gain on fourth down and 10, it seemed this simply was a day not fated in Mizzou's favor.
But on first and 10 from the Mizzou 22-yard-line, McGee underthrew a corner-out route. Brown, who finished with two fumble recoveries, an interception, five tackles and a score, drifted over for the leaping catch. Daniel milked the remaining 51 seconds and the Tigers could finally breathe again.
Rucker liked the idea of calling Brown, "The Prized Pig," for a few weeks, while Brown humbly attributed his performance to his hard work all summer. Still, the former junior college transfer admitted after some prodding that he'd be paying extra attention to the highlight shows later Friday night.
"How many guys in college get two fumble recoveries, [taking] one to the house, a touchdown and the game-saving interception?" ask Brown, whose given name is Cornelius but was tagged 'Pig' for his sloppy eating as a child.
"I'm always a SportsCenter guy," he continued, "but I think I'll be watching all the shows tonight."
For more on Mizzou's win over Illinois, stay tuned for our notebook feature…
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