On Saturday, the Missouri Tigers moved to 1-0 with a hard-fought 23-13 win over the Fighting Illini of Illinois (0-1), by overcoming a 10-point halftime deficit, and pitching a second half shut out.
On Sunday, Coach Pinkel reflected on his team's opening day victory.
"It wasn't easy," began Coach Pinkel. "I thought we made a lot of mistakes in the first half. (Then, we) circled the wagons a little bit, and came out and played a great second half, and did the things necessary to win."
A win is a win, and Illinois, who was pretty much of an unknown quantity going into this game, not only beat Missouri to the punch, but played a fundamentally sound, physical football game. There are several future NFL players among the Illini front seven. Nathan Scheelhaase reminded me of a young Brad Smith.
This game provides evidence of the need for improvement, but also showed some positives for the Tigers.
Coach Pinkel talked about how his team can really grow from the experience of this game.
"We found out a lot about our self," said the coach.
Things that the coaching staff needs to address include improving the running game, and getting Blaine Gabbert to settle down a little in the pocket.
I think we'll see the depth chart evolve at the TB position. And, there's room for improvement in the timing between Blaine Gabbert and the TBs on the running plays. Some running plays were very well blocked and well-executed. Others weren't. I thought that the quality of the players that Illinois had up front, and the way that their very good LBs filled the running lanes, gave Missouri a little bit of trouble. Often times, the Illini out-numbered the Tigers at the point of attack.
Jayson Palmgren and Justin Britt alternated at left guard. It appeared to be about a 60-40 split in the number of plays. At right guard, Travis Ruth relieved Austin Wuebbels occasionally, maybe for less than one-fifth of the plays. The other starting linemen played the entire game. Wes Kemp and Jerrell Jackson did real nice jobs of blocking on the perimeter.
Gabbert made some plays outside of the pocket, including the great throw to T.J. Moe for Missouri's first TD of the season. But in general, he needs to settle down a little, and do a better job of staying in the pocket, even stepping up into the pocket. He just needs to trust his tackles, that they're going to sustain their blocks long enough for him to deliver the football. That's a coaching point, and I'm sure that Coach Yost will be going over that with Blaine in the film study.
Heading into this season, the biggest question I've had about this team is how will this team come together? What kind of character and leadership will develop within this team? Who will this team become? The pieces are in place, and the success of this team, in my opinion, will be largely determined by the development of their collective identity. I thought that the Tigers passed Saturday's opening test. This was very encouraging for Tiger Nation. The team came together. The defense picked up the somewhat struggling offense, and Gabbert and crew pulled it together well enough to secure the win.
Leaders began to emerge. On offense, Jerrell Jackson, Michael Egnew, and T. J. Moe are joining Blaine Gabbert as play makers and leaders. On defense, several leaders have emerged. In fact, I think the real leadership on this team may be on the defensive side of the ball. Carl Gettis, Kevin Rutland, Andrew Gachkar, Luke Lambert, and Aldon Smith are among those already providing leadership, as well as making plays.
The defense was very impressive, especially with the second half shutout. The coaching staff really didn't know what to expect from Illinois, and it took a series or two for them to make the necessary adjustments, but after the first few series, the Tigers' defense pretty much shut the Illini down. In the critical third quarter, the Tigers held Illinois to 10 yards. Carl Gettis and Aldon Smith each had big, big games.
A bad call on Aldon Smith along the sideline resulted in a first down for the Illini, and Missouri lost "leverage", or containment, on a couple of second half running plays, but otherwise, the Missouri defense just about dominated the Illini after intermission. They needed to, because the Tigers' offense was slow to get on track. That's an important aspect of team building that took place on Saturday, that they picked each other up, and it bodes well for the season.
The Tigers unveiled a personnel package in passing situations that Aldon Smith referred to as "candy", which featured four defensive ends up front. He's sweet on this alignment, since the pressure that Aldon and his teammates applied on Scheelhaase on passing downs soured the Illini on their passing game.
It wasn't an overwhelming victory, but it wasn't a squeaker either. They passed the test. They're 1-0, and they know there's plenty to work on and plenty of room for improvement.
"What's critical for us is to become a better team every week," said Coach Pinkel. "The emphasis is going to be on that. Every single coach and single player in our program, we've got to improve, because I think we're capable of being a real good team, if we get better."