As the Missouri Tigers begin an era without Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin, Chase Coffman, and other former stars, they will also look to prove to the nation that the Missouri program is here to stay.
For the third year in a row, Mizzou will open its season with the Arch Rivalry game against Illinois at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. Illinois is coming off a 5-7 season, while winding up just 3-5 in conference play.
The Fighting Illini surely feel that this is the year to finally beat the Tigers at the Dome. After all, Mizzou is rebuilding, while the orange and blue are led by senior quarterback Juice Williams.
Williams had a strong junior year, leading the Big Ten with 3,173 passing yards. He also led the team with 719 rushing yards and five touchdowns. The Missouri defense will have no trouble remembering Williams, as he lit them up for 451 passing yards and five touchdown passes a year ago.
Tiger faithful can expect Williams’ primary target to be Arrelious Benn, a junior wide receiver. Benn could be described as a poor man’s Jeremy Maclin, one who can both catch and run the ball, while also being able to make a move to elude defenders.
When Juice Williams wasn’t running the ball, it was normally Daniel Dufrene shouldering the load a year ago. Dufrene averaged 5.7 yards a carry in 2008, although he did not score a touchdown.
Missouri comes off a second consecutive season that included 10+ wins and a division title. After losing so much talent, many simply don’t know what to make of the 2009 team.
Blaine Gabbert will be thrown into the spotlight as Chase Daniel’s replacement. While no one is expecting Gabbert to immediately play at the same level as the 2007 Heisman finalist, there are expectations for the former five-star recruit.
Many expect junior running back Derrick Washington to run the ball more while Gabbert gets his feet under him at the college level. Washington returns as one of the biggest backfield threats in the conference, having rushed for 1036 yards and scoring 17 touchdowns last season while averaging 5.9 yards a carry.
Nobody can replace Jeremy Maclin, but a combination of players may help to ease the loss felt in the Tiger offense. Jerrell Jackson was lightly recruited, but showed promise as a freshman. His game is similar to that of Maclin’s as he can catch and take handoffs, and can make people miss.
Danario Alexander has all the physical tools a receiver could want, standing at 6’5" and having a 46 inch vertical leap. That said, the past two years have been disappointments for him, due to injuries and the emergence of Maclin.
Many within the program have pointed to the senior as the one who has improved himself the most this summer. If he, Jackson, sophomore tight end Andrew Jones, and senior Jared Perry can each contribute, the offense could still be potent.
There is no doubt that this is Sean Weatherspoon’s team. The conference’s best linebacker has always been vocal, and he has not shied away from a recent Twitter post, where he said “50 days until I squeeze the pulp out of Juice”, regarding the Illini senior quarterback.
The senior linebacker got the best of Williams in this game a year ago, picking off two passes, returning one 35 yards for a touchdown. Weatherspoon will lead a linebacking core along with Luke Lambert and Will Ebner.
The defensive line has three new faces, with Jaron Baston being the only returning starter. Defensive ends Aldon Smith, Jacquies Smith (no relation), and Brian Coulter have impressed in the spring and summer, and are much faster than previous ends for Mizzou.
All eyes will be on the secondary for Mizzou, as the struggles of 2008 have been well-documented. Justin Garrett and William Moore are gone, giving way to Kenji Jackson and Kevin Rutland, along with returning starter Carl Gettis and Notre Dame transfer Munir Prince.
Many think the biggest issue in the secondary was way too many communication breakdowns, leading to wide open receivers. With a simplified system, the team may be able to avoid the big play.
In this matchup, the key will be the Missouri defense. The Tiger offense will likely score points, even if it is not at the frightening pace of last year’s team. Dave Steckel’s secondary will need to step up to ensure another win. In the 2008 game, Illinois scored 42 points, and 28 of them came on passing touchdowns of 20 yards or more.
Illinois only had 81 total rushing yards last season, so if the Mizzou defense can duplicate that performance while even just slowing the passing game down, the Illini may have a hard time moving the football.
Conversely, Mizzou must establish the run to take some pressure off Blaine Gabbert in his first start. With Derrick Washington and Devion Moore, the Illinois defense will have no choice but to respect the run, opening up the play-action game and taking the heat off Gabbert. If Illinois can stop the run, their defensive linemen would be in a position to pin their ears back and rush a quarterback making his first start all night long.
It seems inevitable that this will be the last season of the Arch Rivalry in St. Louis given the current BCS system. Each team will have something to fight for in this game. Illinois wants to finally win this game, while Missouri wants to make it a clean sweep.
For the Tigers, this game could mean the difference between the program falling to the depths of where it once was or solidifying itself among the nation’s best.