ST. LOUIS — The faces of the Missouri football players were painted with exhaustion and relief Saturday as they filed out of the Edward Jones Dome locker room after their wild 40-34 win over Illinois.
Coach Gary Pinkel smirked nervously like a magician who had just escaped a fatal ending to his most recent stunt, and quarterback Chase Daniel wore an innocuous, if not incoherent smile on his face after suffering a mild concussion only an hour before.
As his teammates spoke to reporters, Tony Temple found a seat in the back of the media room and waited. His face paint was a different color.
“We’re way better than that,” he said angrily. “That should never, ever happen. It was too hard to gain a yard. We can’t have that.”
That, Temple was referring to, was the meager 70 rushing yards the Tigers mustered against Illinois’ defense.
Before the game, Pinkel said how vital it would be for his offense to sustain longer drives and eat up more of the clock to allow his defense more time to rest. But those plans never materialized. The Tigers’ longest scoring drive took just 3 minutes and 14 seconds, and Daniel threw a career-high 54 passes.
“You got to be perfect in the passing game if you don’t have a running game going,” said Daniel, who was knocked in the head by an Illinois defender in the fourth quarter. “We won a shootout, and hopefully a lot of games aren’t like that.”
Temple sure hopes so. He fumed on the sidelines after failing to reach the end zone on consecutive plays from the 1-yard line early in the game.
“It was really frustrating,” said Temple, who ran the ball 17 times for just 33 yards. “But Illinois is a great team. Their D-line, linebackers were flying to the ball. But I know my offensive line is way better than that. I have to run harder and we just need to play harder next time.”
The offensive line, which returned three starters from a year ago, had difficulty paving holes for Temple and often times looked confused against Illinois’ defense.
“Illinois was throwing a lot of stunts and they were blitzing quite a bit,” left tackle Tyler Luellen said. “Our offense had to step up and communicate the blitzes and try to get the right guys on the other guys.”
The ineffective running game almost cost the Tigers the victory when they struggled to secure their lead late in the fourth quarter. Temple lost 5 yards on first down deep in Illini territory, and after two-straight Daniel incompletions, Jeff Wolfert missed a 49-yard field goal, giving Illinois plenty of time to march down the field for the winning score.
And Illinois almost certainly would have if not for Pig Brown’s game-saving interception at the goal line with less than a minute left.
“We did some good things, but certainly (the Illinois defense) did a good job of penetrating the gaps,” a relieved Pinkel said after the game. “That’s things I think we can correct.”
The Tigers will have to if they want to avoid any more Saturday shootouts.