ST. LOUIS - So it begins with a waft of nostalgia, this Missouri quest for greatness, a nod to the moment when a cannonball named Jeremy Maclin exploded from obscurity into the national conscience and changed the program forever.
There he stood, prancing past pylons for a second-consecutive season after a game-changing return against Illinois, delivering the Tigers from a fleeting moment of uncertainty before his night was abbreviated with a left ankle injury.
Maclin's 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, midway through the second quarter, sparked MU's momentum. It began a streak of 21-consecutive points in the second quarter that provided MU the necessary fuel to withstand a late Illinois charge and claim a 52-42 victory Saturday in front of 66,441 at the Edward Jones Dome. Then, with 8:55 left in the fourth quarter Maclin limped off the field favoring his ankle after failing to complete a passing route on a third-and-12 play. Two minutes later, Maclin was carted off the field. He didn't play again.
"I talked to him before he left on the cart. I wanted to make sure he was all right," quarterback Chase Daniel said. "It's a scary moment when a player like that goes down. You saw him today on the kickoff return. Obviously, he can change the game with one play."
Afterward, Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said Maclin twisted his ankle. Pinkel said X-rays were negative and team officials plan to have Maclin undergo a precautionary MRI either today or Monday. How many weeks he will miss, if any, is still unknown.
"That affects the kicking game," Pinkel said of Maclin's injury. "That affects substitutions, so we constantly have a process that we have ... so every coach knows what's going on, and we'll make adjustments. "
Before the injury, Maclin's performance brought to mind positive memories for MU fans.
Last season, Maclin dazzled those in black and gold with a 66-yard punt return in this building, serving as a signature moment of his two-touchdown, 227 all-purpose yard breakout performance in another contest where MU raced to a sizeable lead against the Illini, only to maintain a tight grip late to claim the victory.
Maclin's rendition Saturday delivered the Tigers from a 13-10 deficit, after Illinois defensive end Derek Walker snagged a wayward screen pass from Daniel and rumbled into the end zone untouched. MU's offense contained to a manageable simmer to that point, boiled a lethal brew on the following two possessions after Maclin's kickoff return, giving the Tigers 31-13 halftime lead.
Maclin's debut serves as a continuation of his record-breaking redshirt freshman season. Last year, the Kirkwood native finished with 2,776 all-purpose yards, an NCAA freshman record. He was named a consensus All-American, the first MU freshman to do so. His 99-yard kickoff return against Kansas State on Nov. 17 was the first MU kick return for a touchdown since 1982.
"J-mac did his thing," linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. "Hopefully, he'll get back on the field soon."
Despite Maclin's jolt of momentum, Illinois quarterback Juice Williams torched Missouri's secondary in the second half and brought the Illini close. Failed coverage schemes scarred the Tigers, Williams ripping MU's corners for touchdown passes of 20, 26 and 65 yards to allow Illinois to pull within 45-35 early in the fourth quarter.
Then, Weatherspoon ended any doubt about the outcome. On the opening pass of an Illinois drive that began with a little more than three minutes left, he slid in the path of an attempted pass to running back Daniel Dufrene, snagged it from Dufrene's hands and sprinted 35 yards for a touchdown. The Tigers led 52-35, now able to breathe easier.
"(I was) just trying to get out there and make big plays for the defense," Weatherspoon said. "We knew we were going to get that victory."