ST. LOUIS – Despite wins in the previous two Arch Rivalry games, Missouri’s defense had struggled in those openers, allowing an average of 38 points in those games.
Saturday, the Missouri defense took control.
Illinois managed just one field goal in the first half, while new starting quarterback Blaine Gabbert and the Missouri offense rolled on the way to a 37-9 Missouri victory, the Tigers’ third in three years over Illinois.
After last year’s second half comeback by Illinois, stemming largely from the Illini passing game, the Tiger defense didn’t allow Illinois quarterback Juice Williams to get comfortable. His longest rush was nine yards, and he missed his targets several times early in the game.
“That pass rush man, it was crazy,” senior defensive tackle Jaron Baston said. “That comes back to those fast (Missouri) defensive ends out there. They kept them running backwards instead of running forwards. When you’ve got people like that and you’ve got ’Spoon (linebacker Sean Weatherspoon) also running at them and hitting them, it’s going to be hard for any running quarterback out there.
Perhaps no play illustrated the Missouri defensive improvement better than the one that closed Illinois’ opening drive. Williams, on third down from the 43-yard line, appeared to have a receiver wide open down the sideline, as he had numerous times in the 2008 matchup.
But cornerback Carl Gettis read the route, stretched to deflect the ball away, and Missouri took over.
“I just got a chance to see the receiver break down, and the front four got a lot of pressure on Juice,” Gettis said. “So by the time he looked at the receiver, I was able to break on the ball."
In 2008, Illinois quarterback Juice Williams threw for 451 yards and ran for 57. Saturday, Williams was routinely overthrowing receivers, once for a Hardy Ricks' interception that led to a field goal. The Tigers also contained his running, as he accounted for just 27 net yards on the ground.
The Missouri defense came up with two more significant plays in the second quarter. Hardy Ricks intercepted an overthrown Williams pass and returned it to the Illini 26-yard line in the second quarter. Missouri’s offense stalled, but new field goal kicker Grant Ressel hit a 44-yard field goal to give Missouri a 13-3 lead. Gettis said the defensive backs made a point of stopping the Illini passing game.
“As a secondary we didn’t want to give up any big plays,” he said. “We didn’t want to give them a chance to get any type of momentum. I think we accomplished that today. It was focus. We came into the game saying we weren’t going to give up any deep balls.”
Following a Missouri personal foul on an Illinois punt, the Illini got into field-goal range, but Missouri forced fourth down. Williams lined up behind center, but an offensive lineman stepped on his foot as he backpedaled, sending him helplessly to the turf and giving Missouri the ball. The Tigers led 16-3 at the half.
Ankle sprains suffered by Arrelious Benn, Illinois’ best wide receiver, and running back Jason Ford certainly didn’t help Williams and Illinois. Gabbert, however, had a bevy of weapons ready.
Bolstered by defensive stands, the Missouri offense shined. Gabbert completed five of his first six passes on the opening drive, four of them to wide receiver Danario Alexander.
“We knew we had to step up,” Alexander said. “We had great players leave with Chase Coffman and Jeremy Maclin, so we knew we had to get our chemistry going."
Alexander finished with a game-high 10 catches for 132 yards.
“We worked together catching balls every day,” he said. “That transferred onto the field. “
On Missouri’s second drive, Gabbert hit an open Wes Kemp, who ran untouched into the end zone to put the Tigers up 10-0.
“I just had to stay level headed,” Gabbert said. “I couldn’t get too up or too down. That’s what Coach Pinkel told me. Just have fun with it.”
Missouri pulled away after halftime. Gabbert found wide receiver Jerrell Jackson open for a three-yard score. After the teams traded punts, wide receiver Jared Perry caught a screen pass and ran 46 yards for a touchdown, making the score 30-3.
Following a one-yard run that gave Illinois its first touchdown of the game, Missouri fans cheered wildly as Gabbert ran for a fourth quarter touchdown run from eight yards out to give Missouri a 37-9 lead. He finished with 25 completions on 33 attempts for 319 yards and three passing touchdowns. He netted an additional 39 yards on ten carries.
Coach Gary Pinkel was thrilled with Gabbert’s work.
“Just an outstanding performance,” Pinkel said. “I was more nervous about the guys around him than him, and with that being said, he was very focused, locked in. He can run, which puts a lot of pressure on the defense. Gabbert played a great first game.”
Illinois coach Ron Zook came away impressed with Missouri.
“We knew Mizzou was going to be a good football team,” he said. “They played extremely well. They talk about all these new starters, but these new starters have a lot of experience and a lot of playing time.”