There were high expectations.
“The Tigers will start 6-0,” said about three-fourths of message board posts on Internet fan sites in the days before the Missouri-Illinois football game.
What about 1-0?
MU’s 22-15 win against Illinois on Saturday at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis was not decided until the final eight seconds. For most of the game, the Tigers’ experienced offense was unable to put together a scoring drive that didn’t start with the ball on Illinois’ half of the field.
At the end of the third quarter, MU had gathered only seven first downs but many bewildered faces.
The Tigers’ 78-yard winning touchdown drive, though, seemed to give them confidence about meeting preseason expectations that for a while on Saturday seemed too lofty.
“We know what we got to do to take care of business in the fourth quarter,” senior tailback Zack Abron said.
The 13-play drive resembled what the Tigers had been trying all game, with a few twists.
Like earlier in the game, either quarterback Brad Smith ran the ball or he gave it to Abron. The play-calling had been so conservative all day that fans might have thought Rush Limbaugh was up in the press box, instead of Missouri offensive coordinator Dave Christensen and quarterbacks coach David Yost.
Then, on third-and-11, Smith threw a screen pass to Abron, who ran 19 yards down the right sideline to Illinois’ 27. A few plays later, Smith stepped through the middle for 10 yards to make it first-and-goal at the Illini 3.
“He just squirted out of nowhere,” senior wide receiver Darius Outlaw said.
Before the season started, Smith was expected to “squirt,” spin and plow through defenses with ease. On Saturday, though, he finished with 66 yards rushing, almost 20 yards below his 2002 average.
Although it seemed like Smith was ignoring the receivers for most of the game, he also had 102 yards passing. For the touchdown, Smith threw 6 yards to a wide-open Outlaw.
“Aw, that felt great. You dream about catches like that,” Outlaw said. “Now you’ve just got to focus on the rest of the season and get ready for some more.”
After officials called a false start on its first attempt, MU made up for some of its unadventurous play calls with the two-point conversion they ran after a timeout.
Seven Tigers lined up on the far left side of the field, and Outlaw, wide receiver Sean Coffey and tight end J.D. McCoy joined Smith in a diamond on the right. McCoy snapped the ball to Smith, and for the first time of the season, he ran into the end zone, leaving the Illini with their mouths gaping open and Tiger fans smiling like they knew all along.
Missouri football coach Gary Pinkel said the win pleased him, especially since it came in front of 63,876 fans, almost 2,000 more than last year’s game.
“I’m very happy for Mizzou fans because this game is huge for them,” Pinkel said. “It’s emotional, and the rivalry is so big.”
In 2002, MU scored a touchdown on its first possession and never trailed. Pinkel said the ability to come from behind might be a difference in this year’s team.
“You develop character and toughness and things necessary to win in the fourth quarter,” Pinkel said. “We went through a lot of that a year ago. Maybe some of that’s paid off a little bit.”
Outlaw said the expectations placed on the Tigers seem reasonable.
“We went out there and did what we were supposed to do,” Outlaw said.