ST. LOUIS - At least when he is at the Edward Jones Dome, Missouri tailback Zack Abron is a slow starter. When he gets going, though, look out.
Much as he did last season, Abron struggled at the outset but had a strong second half to help Missouri to a 22-15 win against Illinois on Saturday.
Abron, who missed a week of practice with a left ankle sprain, proved he is healthy, especially in the second half. After having the protective boot removed from his left foot Aug. 22, Abron appeared to have all his usual moves in gaining 60 rushing yards on 21 carries and catching three passes for 34 yards. Perhaps most important, Abron did not lose any fumbles.
Abron lost two fumbles early in last season’s game against Illinois but came back to run for 116 yards. This season’s beginning was nearly as auspicious, for Abron lost 4 yards on his first four carries before getting his first gain with a 1-yard touchdown run that put Missouri ahead 7-3.
After things got better, though, they got worse. After a 17-yard run, his longest of the day, Abron nearly lost another fumble. Illinois’ Travis Williams poked the ball loose at the end of Abron’s run, but it went out of bounds. Missouri retained possession and scored the winning touchdown.
The fumble ended Abron’s streak of 183 carries without a fumble, which dates to last season’s Illinois game. Abron insists the streak should be intact.
“I was already out of bounds when I got hit,” Abron said. “I still fumbled. It is a fumble, but it ain’t.”
After nearly ending the drive, Abron kept it alive three plays later. On third-and-11, Abron caught a screen pass from quarterback Brad Smith and picked, juked and finally pounded his way for 19 yards. Abron said he knew when he lined up for the play that he had a good chance to gain the first down.
“By their alignment, it looked pretty good,” Abron said. “They weren’t really playing my side of the ball too heavily. I was able to get through.”
EARLY RETURN: As ambitious as Abron’s return from injury was, Illinois fullback Carey Davis one-upped him. Davis had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee Monday. Not only did Davis play, he led the Illini with 10 receptions for 66 yards.
“It was phenomenal,” Illinois coach Ron Turner said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. He told me on Monday, when he had the surgery, that he was gonna play, and I just kind of laughed. I thought he was still on drugs or something.”
Davis proved his coach wrong, playing much of the game.
“I figured maybe we’d get him a few plays,” Turner said. “Never in my wildest imagination did I think he’d play as much or as well as he did.”
FIRST TIME FOR EVERYTHING: Missouri defied logic, winning despite being outgained in every offensive category. The Tigers had been 0-11 under coach Gary Pinkel when they were outrushed. Illinois had 127 yards rushing to Missouri’s 121 on Saturday. The Tigers had been 0-12 under Pinkel when they were outgained. Illinois nearly doubled Missouri on Saturday, gaining 411 yards to the Tigers’ 223.