Young Tigers Defy Logic In Blowing Out Illinois

Ryan FallerAnalyst ISeptember 6, 2009

ST. LOUIS, MO - SEPTEMBER 5: Blaine Gabbert #11 of the University of Missouri Tigers passes against the University of Illinois Fighting Illini during the State Farm Arch Rivalry on September 5, 2009 at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Missouri.  The Tigers beat the Fighting Illini 37-9.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

In a logical world, Missouri would have lost Saturday afternoon at the Edward Jones Dome.

But in the topsy-turvy and higly volatile world of college football, logic often takes a back seat to unpredictability. And for at least one game, the Tigers took advantage of that volatility. 

For the last two seasons, everyone knew what they were going to get from Missouri: a deadly offensive ensemble of players led by a heady leader at quarterback and a defense that held its own just enough to be a viable complement.

The result was a Heisman Trophy candidate, a No. 1 ranking for the first time in 40 years, a pair of bowl victories, arguably the most electrifying player in program history, and one of the highest win totals in college football during that span.

Then a funny thing happened.

Time caught up with the Tigers. The most successful class in school history moved on.

What remained was uncertainty.

And, not surprisingly, a crossroads emerged: does Missouri, a program that made just one bowl appearance between 1981 and 1997, wilt back into mediocrity under the weight of having to rebuild? Or is MU, regarded by many as a lethargic giant sleeping amongst the nation's elite, finally capable of pulling off the reloading process?

Saturday's season opener was expected to provide the answer and go an awfully long way in determining the course of the 2009 season.

Nobody really knew what this new Missouri team had to offer, on either side of the ball.

Of the 23 seniors who departed, five were NFL draft picks.

One was named Chase Daniel. Two others were the most accurate kicker and most prolific tight end in NCAA history. And the defense, which sometimes took on the form of a sieve in 2008, returned only four starters.

And despite Pinkel and his staff's arduous recruiting efforts over the years, the idea of success being sustained by a 2009 team that's backloaded with 75 sophomores and freshmen was a bit far-fetched. The general consensus was that MU's cupboard had been wiped clean.

However, for Missouri, the only thing more daunting than dealing with the losses it had endured in the offseason was finding out what it was left with.

Daniel's successor, sophomore Blaine Gabbert, was recruited as a five-star talent, but had completed all of five passes at the collegiate level and had not started a game since his senior year of high school.

It was an unsettling scenario made more dire by the fact that a once-star-studded receiving corps was now suddenly being headlined by a sophomore tight end and a pair of inconsistent seniors, one of which has undergone three different surgeries to repair a troublesome ACL in his left knee.

And let's not forget the defense, where a new defensive coordinator spent the spring and preseason camp trying to conjure a pass rush and a functional scheme that would cure a much-maligned unit that nearly finished dead-last nationally in pass defense a season ago.

Meanwhile, stark in contrast was the other sideline.

Illinois boasted a fourth-year starter and All-American candidate under center who had any number of weapons at wide receiver at his disposal, as well as a defense that was eager to exact a little revenge after getting lit up for 92 points the previous two meetings against the Tigers.

Illinois' contest against Missouri was supposed to a means of redemption. The last time the Illini beat the Tigers in St. Louis was 1896, and though wildly entertaining, the first four games of the Arch Rival series only added to the Illinois frustration, which manifested itself in the aftermath of a 52-42 heartbreaker in 2008. The 2009 season opener wasn't been downplayed, but it was being treated as a mere precursor to a legitimate run at a Big Ten title.

The tides were bound to change. And the pundits acted accordingly.

Nearly all across the board, those who ventured a guess agreed that quarterback Juice Williams' time had come to capture his first win against Missouri in three tries. And he would do it in grandiose fashion, upstaging himself after setting a stadium record with 461 combined yards of offense in last year's contest.

The conditions were ripe for a blowout. And it was, only not in the manner in which the masses had foretold.

Perhaps Missouri's win Saturday over Illinois was not all together surprising.

The minute he said goodbye to the likes of Daniel, Chase Coffman, Jeremy Maclin, Jeff Wolfert, Ziggy Hood, and William Moore, Pinkel immediately turned his focus to a group he's since labeled as his most athletic overall.

Never one to succumb to any one emotion, the largely stoic Pinkel has been careful not to get too high or too low on his young team.

At those times he has surrendered his guard, he has done so with a cautious optimism. In the back of his mind, Pinkel knew he had a special mixture of talent entering the season, but he has been willing to reserve praise until it was earned on the field.

Considered it earned. And there's definitely plenty to go around.

The new-look MU offense resembled a herd of noodle-legged fawns on a patch of ice early, but it wasn't long before the nerves subsided.

In front of a hometown crowd, Gabbert showed a national television audience why his recruiting war stretched from coast to coast.

Overcoming a few understandable butterflies, Gabbert benefited from new offensive coordinator David Yost's conservative first-quarter gameplan, which was heavy on option reads and short, low-risk passes.

Before long, the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Gabbert was more relaxed, and the yards came.

When it was all said and done, Gabbert finished his debut having completed 25-of-33 passes for 319 yards and three touchdown passes. Factor in his 39 yards and one score on the ground, and the newest Tiger star had eclipsed the debut of not only his mentor, but that of Brad Smith, who preceded Daniel as Missouri's original record-breaking quarterback.

Danario Alexander, he of the multiple knee surgeries, played the part of a senior leader and became Gabbert's apparent go-to receiver while establishing career-highs in catches and yards. Illinois absolutely had no answer for the lanky Alexander, who hauled in 10 balls for 132 yards, 59 of which came on the drive that broke the game open at the start of the third quarter.

Jared Perry, Alexander's fellow senior receiver, also had a big day, hauling in four passes for 93 yards and a touchdown. Perry's score increased the Missouri lead to 27 with less than six minutes remaining in the third, putting the game well out of reach.

For as great as it was that new stars were being born on offense, the Tigers' defense still needed to stop Williams and the Illini, which is something it wasn't too keen on a year ago.

With defensive coordinator Dave Steckel exercising his vocal chords from the sideline, the Missouri defense looked as inspired as it has in years.

Utilizing considerably more overall speed than in past seasons, the Tigers overcame a weak pass rush by keeping Williams in check and creating a pair of key turnovers.

In all, Missouri kept its opponent to fewer than 350 yards of total offense. The Tigers did that only three times all last season (Southeast Missouri St., Buffalo, Colorado).

Special teams did its part as well. While return and kickoff units were nothing spectacular, new place kicker Grant Ressel was a perfect 3-for-3 on field goals and handled extra points with no trouble.

For all the star-power, talent, and experience the 2008 Missouri team had, it seldom managed to play with equal conviction on both sides of the ball.

In the first game of the season, the newest band of Tigers did just that.

And the end result was a 37-6 pasting of a quality team from a BCS conference.

It's all but a forgone conclusion that Pinkel will expend his fair share of energy this week keeping his team's emotions at an even keel. Of course, one win does not a season make, nor will every game transpire as smoothly as did Saturday's victory.

It's true that Williams didn't have his best game for Illinois, and not having to deal with all-world receiver Arrelious Benn didn't hurt either. Plus, the three games that precede the conference schedule comprise anything but a cakewalk.

Nonetheless, the importance of this win to begin the season cannot be understated. These Tigers will receiver their lumps in 2009, but now they have the confidence that is so crucial to the success of a young team.  

And that may prove to be just as important as blowing out a Big Ten team by 31 points at a neutral site. Or, in other words, winning a game that solid pregame reasoning implied they had no business winning--let alone by more than four touchdowns.

Go figure.


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