ST. LOUIS — Michael Harden knew his backfield experience would be important to keeping Missouri’s defense in order Saturday. His play on special teams in the first quarter, though, was more helpful to the offense.
On fourth-and-15 for Illinois on its 18, junior punter Matt Minnes caught the snap at about the 5. Harden rushed in from the right side, and because the rest of the Illini continued to block, it did not look as if a punt fake had been called. Minnes did not punt, though, and Harden ran into him before Minnes stepped a little to the right.
Sophomore linebacker Derrick Ming finished what Harden had started, tackling Minnes at the 3.
The play led to MU’s first touchdown, Zack Abron’s 1-yard run.
Harden, who had eight tackles, said he was surprised he reached Minnes, and he wished Minnes had punted.
“The call was designated for me to come off the edge,” Harden said. “I thought they was going to pick it up, but I guess they saw it late.”
Before Harden’s special teams plays, the Tigers offense started with two three-and-out series. His teammates said the play helped them forget their slow start.
“Fired up might not be the word,” senior wide receiver Darius Outlaw said. “Excited, for sure.”
On defense, the Tigers’ new secondary featured two players, Harden and sophomore outside safety Jason Simpson, who had played in a game before. Dedrick Harrington, a redshirt freshman outside safety, junior free safety Nino Williams II and sophomore cornerback Calvin Washington made their first starts. David Overstreet, a redshirt freshman free safety, also played for the first time.
Three of the Illini’s key offensive players were in their first game: wide receivers Kelvin Hayden and Lonnie Hurst and running back E.B. Halsey. Harden said preparing for the unknown offense was stressful.
“I hope that doesn’t happen again,” Harden said. “It was very difficult and nerve-racking for me.”
Harden said though the secondary didn’t know Illinois receivers’ instincts and tendencies, they could anticipate basic play formations and the new players understood that the responsibility fell on them.
“We knew what was coming; all they had to do was execute,” Harden said.
Overall, Harden said he thought the backfield as a unit was fair.
“We gave up big plays, but we all stuck together, handled adversity good,” he said.