ST. LOUIS — Win the turnover battle. Win goal-line and short-yardage situations. Be efficient in the red zone. Convert on third down. Win the fourth quarter.
A sign hanging in the Illinois locker room listed these as the formula to beating Missouri. The Illini accomplished none in a 22-15 loss to the Tigers at the Edward Jones Dome on Saturday.
Missouri won its opener for the sixth time in seven seasons.
The Illinois offense dominated the Tigers most of the day, finishing with 411 yards and a time of possession of 32:54 but failed to manage more than three field goals and a touchdown.
Trailing 22-15 with 2:03 to play, Illinois began its last drive from its 10. The Illini quickly moved the ball through the air to the Missouri 29. After two plays netted 6 yards, Missouri free safety Nino Williams II broke up Illinois quarterback Jon Beutjer’s final two passes and sealed the Tigers’ win.
Even though Missouri’s defense had trouble stopping the Illini, it repeatedly made big plays at crucial times.
“When you hold them to field goals and then only one touchdown, that’s not bad defense,” coach Gary Pinkel said. “There are five players that started a Division I football game for the first time.
“I think we certainly have to get better on that side of the ball. The last drive, you just try to keep the ball in front of you, and we gave up one big play on the side. For living on the field, I thought we did some good things.”
Missouri took the lead for good when quarterback Brad Smith connected with wide receiver Darius Outlaw with 4:12 left. Before that score they had not sustained a drive the previous three quarters, but with his offense struggling, Pinkel did what any coach with a quarterback like Smith would do, he gave him the ball.
Smith began the Missouri drive with a 2-yard run, but the Tigers soon found a rhythm and started to tear off yards in large chunks. A 14-yard slant from Smith to Outlaw and a Zack Abron 17-yard run down the Missouri sideline sent the Tigers on their way.
The drive nearly stalled after Smith was unsuccessful on two rushes, but on third-and-11 at the Illinois 46, Smith found Abron on a screen and Abron juked his way to a 19-yard gain and a first down.
Missouri moved the ball to the Illini 2, setting up the winning score. Missouri offensive coordinators David Yost and Dave Christensen called for Smith to run a play-action bootleg. Smith took the snap, faked the handoff
to Abron, and rolled to his right. As Smith scanned the field, receiver Darius Outlaw flashed across the middle and Smith hit him in the back of the end zone for the touchdown to give Missouri a 20-15 lead.
Smith, who finished with 102 passing yards and two touchdowns, said he wouldn’t want the final drive to go any other way.
“We kind of struggled early on,” he said. “Our offense was starting to get first downs, then on the last drive, we were finally able to put it together for the last important score. That was coach’s call; he told me when I was going out there that they were going to put the ball in my hands, and that’s how I like it.”
Missouri got the two-point conversion on a play called “polecat right.” The Tigers lined up seven players on the left hash mark and sent receivers Outlaw and Sean Coffey, tight end J.D. McCoy and Smith to the ball. McCoy quickly snapped the ball and Smith dashed to the right corner of the end zone for the conversion.
Illinois made a number of mental errors. Missouri scored its first touchdown after the three consecutive Illini mistakes. An ineligible receiver down field penalty and a false start sent Illinois back to its 18 before Michael Harden and Derrick Ming broke through to drop Illinois punter Matt Minnes at the Illinois 3. Abron scored four plays later and MU took a 7-3 lead.
“We made mistakes and they didn’t,” Illinois coach Ron Turner said. “They took advantage of opportunities and we didn’t and that was the difference.”
Illinois put together a long drive after Abron’s touchdown but stalled again when Missouri outside safety Dedrick Harrington knocked the ball loose from Illinois receiver Melvin Bryant. Cornerback Calvin Washington recovered the fumble, which was the game’s only turnover.
The Tigers found themselves in good field position again in the second quarter after Minnes’ 33-yard punt left Missouri at the Illini 47. MU went ahead 14-3 when Smith hit McCoy over the middle for a 14-yard touchdown pass with 5:31 left in the first half.
Illinois answered with a pair of John Gockman field goals to leave it trailing 14-9 at the half.
The Illini offense picked up where it left off in the third quarter behind the running of freshman tailback Ibrahim Halsey.
Halsey, who finished with 139 yards on 20 carries, touched the ball 13 times and accounted for 101 yards in the third quarter, but couldn’t muster a yard on an important fourth-and-1 at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Halsey dived up the middle where Tigers defensive tackle Russ Bell met him short of the first down marker.
Illinois lost the turnover battle, struggled in short yardage situations and the red zone, was 8-for-16 on third downs and was outscored 8-6 in the fourth quarter.
A recipe the Illini hoped would lead to their win became the formula to Missouri’s victory.