Missouri-Illinois: Upon Further Review

Ryan FallerAnalyst ISeptember 7, 2009

ST. LOUIS, MO - SEPTEMBER 5: Jared Perry #4 of the University of Missouri Tigers hauls in a touchdown pass 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)

You know it'd be impossible to escape Missouri's surprisingly dominant 37-9 win over Illinois on Saturday without a little extra analysis.

Here's a look at who stood out in the Tigers' season-opening victory, some more obvious than others:

Blaine Gabbert

I'm walking out on a limb, I know, but the discussion surrounding Saturday's performance should begin and end with the talented young signal-caller from St. Louis. Gabbert's physical attributes had been well-outlined prior to last weekend, but amidst our knowledge of his immense capabilities, seldom did we summon the gumption to venture a potentially misguided guess as to what to expect from him.

One earth-shattering performance later, we got our answer, if only via a glimpse. The best thing is, the surface has only been scratched. Aside from a few skittish moments in the first quarter, Gabbert did about all you could ask from a quarterback. He managed the game almost flawlessly, didn't turn the ball over, and, most importantly, put his team in a position to win, which is all you can ask from even the most experienced of quarterbacks. To boot, statistically, Gabbert pulled off perhaps the most impressive debut ever by a Missouri quarterback.

Gabbert's numbers speak for themselves, but head coach Gary Pinkel spent the postgame gushing about his quarterback's certain anatomical quality.

“What makes you a great quarterback is this,” Pinkel said, tapping his chest, “your heart, your competitiveness, your toughness. … You win at quarterback because of what’s in you. That’s what I’m more excited about. I don’t care if he can throw a ball from here to Columbia. It doesn’t matter to me. I saw competitiveness. I saw toughness. I saw poise. And that’s what you have to have if your quarterback’s going to be a great player.” 

As my fellow Bleacher Report Mizzou writer, Peter Fleischer, warns, it's easy to go overboard following the Illinois win. The performance was impressive, but a team this young doesn't grow up much without a little adversity. Not much went wrong on Saturday, but at some time or another, something will. When it will happen is anybody's guess, but it will be interesting to see how the team, especially Gabbert, responds when everything's not as rosy as it was against the Illini.

One of Pinkel's greatest qualities as a coach is that he continually guards against complacency. But he may not even know to what extent Gabbert's intangibles will carry this team, particularly when adversity intervenes.

The secondary

Considering at this time last season the MU defense was licking its Juice Williams-inflicted wounds, its notable performance deserves just as much praise as Gabbert's. Entering the season, the defense as a whole was filled with question marks, but the uncertainty surrounding the secondary was off the charts.

Confusion and blown coverages received much of the blame for 2008's defensive shortcomings, namely the Illinois game, but it's my opinion that those were just one big cover-up for a lack of overall athleticism in the secondary—an issue only magnified by safety William Moore's lack of health.

However, namely cornerback Carl Gettis, who has slimmed down some 15 pounds, this year's defensive backfield flashed significantly more speed and an ability to break on the ball. Defenders were rarely in the wrong spot, and unlike a season ago, Illinois wide receivers—the injury to Arrelious Benn aside—didn't have the luxury of prancing into open real estate. Not to mention the plethora of substitutes who also shined, the foursome of Gettis, safeties Hardy Ricks and Kenji Jackson, and cornerback Kevin Rutland also tackled extremely well, which limited yards after the catch and prevented the big play that so plagued the Tigers in last season's Arch Rivalry game.

New defensive coordinator Dave Steckel, whose MO is discipline, devised a gameplan that accentuated his players' strengths, all the while shying away from the intricate blitz packages and detailed scheme that attributed to last season's troubles.

Carrying out Steckel's toned-down scheme, the secondary shied away from the line of scrimmage, but a soft defensive cushion forced the Illini offense to inch its way down the field. In short, MU was less aggressive on defense, yet a secondary that seems to be as talented as it is young didn't necessarily need the aid of a bunch of bells and whistles. And the result, as ironic as it may seem, was a far more active defense that created turnovers because each player was positioned properly, knew his role, and converged on the ball.

Aldon Smith...and the defensive line

I'm saving much of my optimism for the Missouri defensive line, not necessarily for what it did against Illinois, but for what it has the potential to do. Popular opinion says senior tackle Jaron Baston and the heralded trio of Brian Coulter and the Smiths—Jacquies and Aldon—put little heat on Juice Williams, but the broader picture suggests they did a solid job carrying out the defensive game plan.

Aldon Smith (85) was all over the field in his debut (Jeff Roberson/AP)

The first line of defense in Steckel's conservative scheme, the line did an admirable job of shutting off running lanes and containing Williams on the edge, not allowing him to escape the pocket and make plays with his legs.

It wasn't always pretty, but the "keep the play in front of you" philosophy started with the defensive line. And lost in the all the gripes concerning the lack of quarterback pressure is the fact the Tigers managed to record three sacks, although two came on consecutive plays when the game was well in hand.

More than anything else, the solid yet unspectacular play from the defensive line on Saturday hints at a promising future. During preseason camp, all we heard was that Pinkel and Steckel would employ a rotation at defensive end, and not once did either mention playing Coulter and the Smiths simultaneously. But that's exactly what happened.

Taking a page from the playbook of St. Louis Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo, who, regardless of their size, often utilized his four best pass-rushers at the same time while with the New York Giants, Steckel unveiled what he has coined "The Scorpion." With starters Coulter and Jacquies Smith at the ends, Steckel at times inserted Aldon Smith into the line's interior, giving his front four the advantage of having every one of its best players on the field at the same time. And it showed.

In his first-ever college start, Aldon Smith was the D-line's most impressive performer, recording six tackles and a sack. Three of his tackles registered for a loss, Smith made plays off the edge and displayed a quickness on the perimeter of the defense that even former MU end and All-Big 12 player Stryker Sulak would envy. And his production continued inside at tackle, where his strength generated a surprising push up the middle, alongside Baston.

Given Aldon Smith's prototypical defensive end size, the alignment looked out of sorts, to say the least. But this new and radical look allows Steckel flexibility while providing opposing offenses with a whole new look. First and foremost, though, it's an easy and effective way to put the best personnel on the field.

Whether "The Scorpion" finds a permanent place in the defensive playbook in uncertain, but the talent on MU's defensive line is unquestionable. Steckel will be the first one to tell you that his defensive line didn't even come close to playing up to its ability, but it's exciting to know this group will only improve as the season wears on.

The two-headed monster of Danario Alexander and Jared Perry

For a multitude of reasons, both Alexander and Perry have been aggravatingly inconsistent throughout their careers. But they began their senior seasons exemplifying the leadership that MU's young receiving corps will need in 2009.

An impressive talent whose production has been completely overshadowed by injury, the 6-foot-5 Alexander had a field-day against Illinois. And it's no coincidence he set career-highs in catches (10) and yards (132) against Illinois. The victim of a once-shattered wrist and numerous knee surgeries, Alexander appears to be at 100 percent health for the first time since his freshman season of 2006, and he immediately established a nice rapport with Gabbert, who will no doubt rely heavily upon his senior target to be a go-to man at all points of the field.

After receiving a short-lived demotion in preseason camp, Perry has re-asserted himself as one of the team's most valuable wideouts. Held out of spring practices with a shoulder problem, Perry has also been victimized by the injury bug, but his up-and-down production is as much a result of Missouri's recent wealth of offensive depth as anything. With players like Jeremy Maclin, Chase Coffman, and Tommy Saunders gone, Perry can finally become a focal point of the offense, and he got off to terrific start.

In catching four balls for 93 yards on Saturday, Perry displayed the quickness and big-play ability that defined his freshman season of 2006, during which he racked up 429 yards on 37 receptions.

The kicking game

Replacing the most accurate kicker in NCAA history is no small feat, but Grant Ressel's quest to succeed Jeff Wolfert got off a wildly favorable start.

Pinkel and kicking coach David Yost expressed a reluctance to let Ressel take a shot at field goals over 40 yards, but Saturday should have erased any doubt about the strength of Ressel's right foot. Called upon three times in the first half against Illinois, Ressel nailed all three attempts, including two from beyond the 40-yard line. He also connected on all four extra points.

Other notes

Thanks to a tip from a fellow writer of mine at Bleacher Report, I found out last night that Chase Daniel has landed a spot on the New Orleans Saints' practice squad. The report was later confirmed by Dave Matter of the Columbia Daily Tribune. Daniel was released by the Washington Redskins on Saturday, shortly before NFL teams were required to have their rosters trimmed to 53 players.

Sophomore tailback De'Vion Moore is listed as doubtful for Saturday's game against Bowling Green at Memorial Stadium. At his Monday press conference, head coach Gary Pinkel classified Moore's injury as a high ankle sprain, but also said it shouldn't be severe. Moore said he injured the ankle in the fourth quarter against Illinois during a play around the goal line. True freshman Kendial Lawrence, who saw spot duty against Illinois, has been promoted to backup running back.

Junior college transfer safety Jarrell Harrison (dislocated elbow) is wearing a brace and has limited motion in his arm, but he's unlikely to play against Bowling Green. Harrison dislocated the elbow during the final of scrimmage of preseason camp and was initially expected to be sidelined for three weeks.

Missouri is 1-3 all-time versus Bowling Green. The Tigers have lost each of the last two meetings in the series, including a 20-13 home loss in Pinkel's debut as head coach in 2001. The last meeting took place in 2002, when current Florida head coach Urban Meyer and the Falcons beat up on the Tigers, 51-28, at Bowling Green.

Saturday's game is scheduled for 6 p.m. central time. It is available through local cable, satellite, and fiber-optic providers for a fee of $29.95.

Below is footage of Pinkel's Monday press conference: