After the ‘Year of the Upset’ last season, 2008 has a lot to live up to. However, with more upsets, close games, and of course SEC domination in this first week, we can surely expect another event-filled season.
The top two ranked contenders in the ACC (Virginia Tech and Clemson) both fell on opening weekend, Michigan lost in the Big House again, USC tattooed Virginia, and Missouri and Illinois put together a combined 94 points and over 1,000 total yards in a shootout.
If this week is any indication of what there is to come, there is no way I’m missing out on all the action. So this year, instead of watching these games on television I’ve decided to travel to some football games across the country. As a student at a Washington University in St. Louis – a Division III football program – I don’t get to truly experience the beauty that is big-time football: the tens of thousands of fans who pack the stadium, the thousands more who tailgate outside, the bands, the cheerleaders, and (the concept of) amateur athletes playing simply for the pride of their school.
So this week I traveled to downtown St. Louisto catch the Missouri Tigers – Illinois Fighting Illini shootout at a sold out crowd at the Edward Jones Dome. Like last year, the interstate rivalry would be played at a neutral site but this year each program had high expectations. For the first time in the history of their rivalry, both teams were ranked.
The “Arch Rivalry Game” concept began last year as Illinois and Missouri decided to play at a neutral site – in St. Louis – for a few years in an effort to rekindle a historical rivalry. Last year I went to the first installment and was treated to a surprisingly entertaining game that went down to the wire as the Tigers beat the Illini, 40-34.
Each program was entering the season after banner seasons last year in which Illinois made the Rose Bowl and Missouri finished ranked in the AP top 5. Each looked to build that momentum in the next year in the form of a Big Ten title for the Illini and a possible national championship for Mizzou.
While my friends from Illinois and I had been planning this trip for a while, it almost didn’t happen. The “Arch Rivalry Game” – which had to resort to giving away tickets just to fill the stadium last year – sold out months ago. Tickets were in such high demand that the game sold out within the first 30 minutes that tickets were out to the public on Ticketmaster.
So without a connection to get tickets, I searched on Craig’s List for a few weeks and looked on as people were attempting to sell nosebleed tickets that originally cost $15 for $90. The eBay price was even worse. With only a few days left leading up to the game, I was going to have to resort to buying off scalpers, which may or may not be legal in the state of Missouri.
Then I got a phone call from a guy on Wednesday who offered 4 tickets for $50 each. Now, if you’ve ever dealt with people on Craig’s List, you always have to be cautious of scams or the potential of getting robbed at gunpoint when you go to their shady apartment complex on the other side of the river.
Anyways, when I went to the seller’s office, he gave me these print-out tickets which definitely did not look legitimate, but he did show us is I.D. So if we did end up with bootleg tickets I was prepared to head to his house on Maryland Avenue and tell him about it.
We took the Metro on the way down to the stadium as we encountered peaceful, stoic Illini and Tiger fans. This would all change as we walked closer to the stadium and ran into a throng of tailgaters, scalpers, and random guys chilling outside and taking in the scene.
As we began our ascent to the nosebleed seats in Edward Jones, the simplistic chants began from each side:
Those chants went back and forth throughout the game – even in the restroom – but the latter would sound much more prominent as the contest went on.
I found out that contrary to other rivalries like Ohio State-Michigan or Auburn-Alabama, these fans don’t really hate each other. One would think that having a rivalry game at a neutral site is a terrible idea due to the impending fights/possible deaths due to opposing fans sitting in the same area as each other, but the atmosphere seemed like everyone was here for a good time.
One thing was clear from the opening kickoff: Missouri was a much better football team. Their masterful spread offense run by senior quarterback Chase Daniel looked virtually unstoppable as he hit Chase Coffman and Jeremy Maclin on intermediate routes and Jared Perry on a few deep balls. Sophomore running back Derrick Washington also impressed with 130 yards rushing and 2 touchdowns on the night.
Illinois looked like it had a solid defense but their scheme was ill-prepared for the 4- and 5-wide vertical attack by the Tigers. This game felt like déjà vu in the first half as Missouri started out firing on all cylinders while Illinois’ offense struggled. One of the Fighting Illini’s two touchdowns in the first half came from a pick-6 by defensive lineman Derek Walker.
By the end of the first half, this game seemed like it was almost over. Missouri racked up an astonishing 373 yards on offense in the first half en route to scoring 31 points. By far the most impressive play of the half was when tight end and All-American candidate Chase Coffman caught a ball in traffic, juked a defender, and jumped over a defensive back to make another in a series of first downs. Most fans were sitting down at that point but we all stood up and cheered, in awe of what just happened.
The second half, like last year, belonged to the Fighting Illini. One of our first observations of the second half was that Juice Williams – the highly-touted but not all that productive junior quarterback – has a cannon for an arm. More specifically, he has the strongest arm I’ve ever seen in a college quarterback. Remember those fake Powerade commercials with Michael Vick throwing lasers to his receivers? That’s what it looked like with Juice. When on target, he was literally drilling his receivers in the numbers. In NCAA Football, he should have a 99 rating in arm strength. The only issue with Juice is that his accuracy is probably around a 70. Hitches, outs, and slant routes are not his forte but he can sure throw a good deep ball.
By the middle of the 3rd quarter as Illinoismade its way back into the game, Juice was throwing downfield at will to Chris Duvalt and Will Judson. An angry Mizzou fan sitting next to me almost had a heart attack over the sudden demise of the Missouri secondary, to which we merely replied, “maybe they’re just too slow.” Indeed, the defenses on both sides of the ball just couldn’t keep up with the high-powered O.
By the 4th quarter, Illinois was back in the game with a chance to get within three points. But just like last year, the Illini Pride faithful were disappointed as Missourilinebacker Sean Weatherspoon ripped the ball away from running back Daniel Dufrene and scored to make the game out of reach. Juice threw his career high 5th touchdown as the game came to a conclusion but it was too little, too late.
From their performance, Missourilooks like a bona fide Big 12 and national title contender and Illinois might have some work to do on D. Either way, the game atmosphere was incredible.
After the game we wandered on our way through the Landing where the single most important thing on both the Illinois and Missouri fans’ minds was getting as wasted as possible. Any ill feelings during the game vanished. They were here to have a good time and surely got more than what they asked for.
If the 3rd Arch Rivalry game is as entertaining as the first two have been, then I can’t wait to do this again next year.