ST. LOUIS — Saturday, T.J. Moe left his mark on the Illinois defense. And the defense got a chance to leave its mark on Moe.
Five or six marks, actually — tiny black stitches that jutted from Moe’s chin like a patch of mysteriously dark stubble that he’d missed while shaving.
“I’m going to have that for the rest of my life,” Moe said.
Was it worth it? Absolutely.
In his first start for the Missouri football team, Moe, a sophomore, was the standout wide receiver in Missouri’s 23-13 win. He had 13 receptions for 101 yards and scored the team’s first touchdown of the day. Moe, who stepped up to the first string after Jerrell Jackson’s preseason wrist injury, has been waiting for this game for weeks. And, in a series of plays that each lasted mere seconds, he lived up to the hype that’s been surrounding his debut.
“There’s something about young guys in the game, first-year starters,” teammate Wes Kemp said. “He just did an amazing job just getting open for Blaine (Gabbert).”
Head coach Gary Pinkel stressed that Moe has matured a lot since his freshman season, when he was adjusting to the position switch from quarterback to receiver.
“T.J.’s a little different player than he was a year ago,” Pinkel said.
*Offensive coordinator Dave Yost agreed and said that today was the first time that many fans have gotten to see Moe’s full potential.
“You get to see the football player, the guy that everybody saw in high school, the guy that we saw in high school,” Yost said. “(He has) great quickness, great ball skills. Just get the ball in his hands, and he’ll make plays.”
Neither Pinkel nor Yost seemed surprised by Moe’s performance. Pinkel admitted that no one on the team did anything magical in Saturday’s game, and Moe was decidedly humble about his performance.
“I don’t know if there’s a secret,” Moe said. “You’ve just got to catch the ball no matter what.”
In simple terms, yes, that’s what a wide receiver must do. But throughout Saturday’s game, Moe positioned himself well and was Gabbert’s go-to receiver. For his touchdown reception, Moe said that he was open to start the play, just waiting for Gabbert to notice him.
“Blaine scrambled around a little bit, and then I was just standing back there waving my hand,” Moe said. “He saw me and so I tried to keep my feet in, and we got it.”
Although Moe was probably the most consistent player on the offense throughout the game, the receiver gave his quarterback most of the credit for his performance. In his opinion, he was able to have the game that he did because of Gabbert’s delivery.
“Obviously, Blaine, he’s the best quarterback in the country, so he’s going to put the ball where it needs to be, and we need to go catch it,” Moe said.
Kemp, however, said that Moe deserved to be acknowledged for his performance, not only for his physical play but also for his mental toughness.
“He’s such a mature young guy,” Kemp said. “I think he took everything in stride and did such a good job. I’m really proud of him.”
One of the keys to Moe’s success was his performance in third-down situations, which the Tigers struggled with in the first half. Moe stepped in to convert third downs and extended Gabbert’s drives throughout the game.
“On third down, he was doing real good for us … especially with Jerrell and his wrist,” Kemp said.
Moe’s ability to place himself on the field and work with the space he was given was also crucial. Yost called Moe’s strength a “natural feel for space” and when he planted his feet on the back edge of the end zone and reached for Gabbert’s touchdown pass, Moe worked with the inches of turf at his disposal to bring the Tigers back into the game.
Despite his almost perfect placement on that pass, Moe said that not everything went completely smooth for him Saturday. His stitches, for one, added a damper to the afternoon, and he said that he needs to be more aware of the defense so he doesn’t get so banged-up in the future. He also complained about a poorly-sized helmet.
“I need a new helmet, man,” Moe said. “I talked to the equipment guys. They said they’ll get me a new one.”
A couple stitches and a faulty helmet are nothing compared to the performance that Moe showed coaches and fans on Saturday. In three hours and 20 minutes, he went from a largely untested wide receiver to a player who could become a legitimate and unique force on the Missouri football team.
“He’s different than (Danario) Alexander; he’s different than (Jeremy) Maclin,” Yost said. "He’s kind of got his own … skill set. What we’ve got to do is make sure we use those to the best of his ability.”