It’s not always a good thing to finish what you start.
Missouri showed that Saturday, turning around a dismal offensive start to beat Eastern Illinois 37-0.
Among the results is the Tigers’ first 3-0 start since 1981 and their first shutout since 1998, leading to a combination of relief and elation among the players and the crowd of 44,490.
What ended as a rout began about as mundane as Memorial Stadium in February. Missouri didn’t score until late in the first half, struggling to get the ball downfield, as well as relying mostly on run plays and short passes.
The Tigers managed only 53 yards in the first quarter, and Eastern Illinois (1-1) gained 70 yards, missing an opportunity to take an early lead when a low snap derailed a 36-yard field goal attempt.
“We have to start controlling the first quarter again,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “I’ll tell you like it is. It wasn’t very good. We’ve gotta start faster on offense. On defense, we did a lot of the right things.”
The Tigers’ defense kept the game scoreless and made big plays to set up Missouri’s first two scores. Free safety David Overstreet II forced an Andre Raymond fumble that whip Jason Simpson recovered, giving Missouri the ball at the Panther 36 with 1:41 left in the half.
Free safety Nino Williams II said the defense’s goal was to hold down the Panthers until the offense got things going.
“They can’t win if the score is 0-0,” Williams said. “We just had the mindset to keep doing what we were doing, don’t lose focus and don’t get down on the offense.”
Tailback Zack Abron caught a 7-yard screen pass on Missouri’s possession after the fumble, and rushed four times including a 5-yard touchdown for the Tigers’ first score.
The defense and special teams helped the offense again on the next drive, stopping Eastern Illinois three-and-out to ensure the Tigers’ offense of getting the ball back before the half.
Redshirt freshman Josh Hibbets then partly blocked Tom Schofield’s punt, giving Missouri the ball at the Panther 27.
Six plays later, the Tigers scored, finished off by a 4-yard pass from Brad Smith to Sean Coffey with 17 seconds left.
The 14 points in fewer than two minutes were all the Tigers’ offense needed to get jump-started. Eastern Illinois never recovered.
“We just said, ‘Look, these guys can’t play with us, man, we’ve gotta show them who we are,” junior Thomson Omboga said. “They came in our house and we hadn’t put no points on the board. I think someone just came over and hit us upside the head.”
Missouri opened things up in the second half, throwing more deep routes and spreading the ball around. In all the Tigers completed six passes of 15 yards or more and 11 receivers caught passes.
“Usually we have just one receiver get the glory,” Omboga said. “I think our top three receivers had five catches, so we spread the ball around. That’s good. We’ve got a lot of talented receivers and we’ve gotta use ’em.”
Smith, who hasn’t thrown an interception this season, was 26-for-33 on passing, as he amassed 236 yards through the air. He threw just one incompletion in the second half.
Missouri scored on three straight drives in the second half, racking up 305 total yards. It also scored on a blocked punt.
It was almost four straight scores for the offense, but a Michael Matheny 33-yard field goal attempt hit the left upright and ended Missouri’s first drive of the half.
The next drive, Abron, got a big hole off the left tackle on fourth-and-1. He blew past the Panthers’ scrunched up defense for a 25-yard touchdown run. The 68-yard drive was the Tigers’ longest and was kept alive a play earlier when Smith found Omboga for 18 yards over the middle.
“We went into this game saying we’ve got to get the ball down the field more,” Pinkel said. “I think we did. We missed on a few of them, but I thought it was really good.”
After the defense forced another three-and-out, one of eight on the day, Hibbets blocked another punt, recovering this one in the end zone for a touchdown. Matheny followed with a missed extra point and the Tigers led 27-0.
On his last scoring drive, Smith hit Omboga, his favorite target, for an 11-yard touchdown pass. Omboga set a career high with seven catches for 71 yards.
Santino “Sonny” Riccio relieved Smith with the Tigers leading 37-0 and completed 4-of-5 passes for 52 yards.