COLUMBIA — Will Franklin sat there, jaw dropped, his eyes in disbelief at what they were seeing. It couldn’t be possible.
It was five years ago, and Franklin, a then-standout receiver at Vashon High School, was at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis watching redshirt freshman quarterback Brad Smith use the porous Illinois defense to write the first chapter of his storied MU career. Smith dazzled under the dome lights. He jumped, he shifted, he twirled, he passed, he ran. Man, did he run.
Before Illinois could adjust, it was too late. Smith passed for 152 yards and ran for 138, including the clinching 24-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter to propel the Tigers to a 33-20 victory.
“It was a different experience,” Franklin said. “I’ve never seen a quarterback as mobile as he was, in person, like I did during that game.”
That was in 2002, and after one more game (a Missouri win) in 2003 that extended MU’s all-time series lead over the Illini to 13-7, the State Farm Arch Rivalry went on a four-year hiatus.
Now the game is back, and the roles have flipped: It is the Tigers’ unproven defense that will be responsible for containing Illinois’ elusive, dual-threat quarterback.
The Illini are led by sophomore Isiah “Juice” Williams, a quarterback cut from the same mold as Smith. As a true freshman last year, Williams broke several school records, setting rushing marks by a quarterback for a career (576), season (576) and single game (145). He was less impressive throwing the ball, though, connecting on only 39.5 percent of his passes.
Like Smith, Williams has a chance for his breakout performance to come in St. Louis.
“It’s a great comparison,” Franklin said. “I’ve seen (Williams) play, I’ve seen him on film, and he’s a great athlete. Will Juice live up to the hype? That’s a different story.”
The Tigers have worked hard to make sure that he doesn’t. MU coaches had the scout team simulate Williams’ style all week to make sure that no Juice gets loose on the field.
“His scrambling ability, his ability to make a play when it breaks down, those are all concerns that you have when you play a guy like that,” coach Gary Pinkel said. “In practice, we try to work on contain drills and we try to work on scramble drills to try to prepare our football team.”
The Tigers know what they can expect from their offense. The team returns eight offensive starters from a unit that carried the team to an 8-5 record a year ago. MU coaches have expressed confidence that quarterback Chase Daniel and Co. will improve from last year’s eighth-ranked offense and continue to put points on the board at an exponential rate.
However, with such a quick-striking offense, Pinkel said it will be imperative to find ways to control the clock so that the defense doesn’t tire out trying to catch Williams.
“You have to get more three-and-outs on defense,” Pinkel said. “That will help. We can’t turn over the football on offense. But the bottom line is that we have to be better against the run.”
That may be difficult. Only five starters return from last year’s 58th-ranked rush defense, and an already suspect defensive line lost two impact players. Standout defensive ends Brian Smith and Xzavie Jackson, who accounted for a combined 49 career sacks, are gone, and less experienced juniors Striker Sulak and Tommy Chavis have come in to replace them.
“For all those guys, there’s going to be a test,” Pinkel said. “Those are our questions marks, as was a year ago with our offense. And we won’t really know until we get out there and go.”
Williams isn’t the only player that the MU defense needs to worry about. Illinois returns nine offensive starters from last year’s 2-10 team, and running back Rashard Mendenhall, who led the Big 10 with an 8.2 yards per carry average last season, will look to take advantage of the Tigers’ suspect line.
Illini coach Ron Zook, known for his ability to recruit top prospects (22 of the 24 starters on Florida’s national championship team were recruited by his staff), has another five-star recruit in receiver Arrelious Benn, a true freshman who is expected to play tomorrow after sustaining a shoulder sprain earlier in fall camp.
“(Zook) is building a great program there, which is of no surprise to me,” Pinkel said. “I expect them to be a much, much better football team.”
Mix Illinois’ improvement with the bad blood that’s sure to boil between the two rivals and their fans, and Pinkel said he expects the atmosphere to be electric.
“There’s a sense of urgency that there’s no warm-up period,” he said. “Not that there ever was, but you play a team, a Big Ten school of this caliber and such a big game, national TV, all that goes with that, and we want to play well. I think our players recognize that.”
Smith sure did.