ST. LOUIS – On a stretch of turf less than five miles from the hospital where he was born, Blaine Gabbert provided the answers.
Throughout fall camp Gabbert displayed the array of qualities that had made him one of the most coveted high school players in the country. At 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, the sophomore regularly showed off a combination of accuracy, touch and arm strength that could leave anyone in awe.
But there were still questions. How would an unproven 19-year-old quarterback fare under the roar of 60,000 screaming fans and a national TV audience? Could the Missouri offense dominate like it had with Chase Daniel?
Wonder no more.
Gabbert looked unflappable while completing 25 of his 33 passes for 319 yards and three touchdowns in Missouri’s 37-9 win over Illinois Saturday afternoon.
After the Missouri offense stalled en route to the end zone on the first drive, Gabbert delivered the throw that provided both the sigh of relief and the new air of expectation among the Tiger faithful.
On 1st and 10 from the Illinois 48-yard line, Gabbert faked a hand-off to Derrick Washington before throwing a strike to sophomore wide receiver Wes Kemp for his first career touchdown pass.
“It feels great, because all the pressure’s off,” Gabbert said. “We got points up on the board quickly. From then on, you’re just having fun.”
The Tiger offense wasn’t without its hiccups in the first half. Missouri needed a personal foul after an incomplete pass intended for Jared Perry to continue a feeble third drive, and the unit failed to gain a yard after a Hardy Ricks' interception left it with excellent field position inside the Illini 30.
But for all the inconsistency in the form of dropped passes and stuffed runs, Gabbert provided the stability, completing 14 of his 20 first half attempts for 107 yards and a score.
And he didn’t do it just with his arm.
Gabbert showed an ability to be mobile while maintaining his threat as a passer and to hurt a defense with his feet. He rushed for 39 yards, including a touchdown.
“Blaine’s really a runner with the football,” offensive coordinator Dave Yost said. “When he runs with it, he runs with it. He doesn’t just scramble around and try to throw it away.”
The real show, however, is what Gabbert can do with his right arm. When the second half began, Gabbert showed the element he brings to the Missouri offense.
On the half’s first play from scrimmage, Gabbert was flushed out of the pocket but still managed to keep his eyes downfield as he rolled to his right. Just as it looked like he was about to tuck the ball and run, Gabbert fired a pass up the right sideline to Perry for a 14-yard gain.
“It gives you a chance sometimes when you might be late on a read that you can get away with it,” Yost said. “He gives you some more leeway in that way.”
Gabbert isn’t lacking a single physical quality that makes elite quarterbacks. But for head coach Gary Pinkel the excitement about his newest quarterback has nothing to do with arm strength or athleticism.
“I don’t care if he can throw the ball from here to Columbia,” Pinkel said.
Pinkel said that among all the great quarterbacks he’s been around, from Chase Daniel to NFL players like Chris Chandler and Mark Brunell, Gabbert has the most talent of the bunch. But talent doesn’t make you a great quarterback.
“What makes you a great quarterback is this,” Pinkel said pointing to his chest. “It’s your heart, your competitiveness and your toughness.”
“You win as a quarterback because of what’s in you.”