Starting his first collegiate game, in his hometown of all places, sophomore quarterback Blaine Gabbert was understandably a little nervous.
But the way he and the Tigers dismantled the Illinois Fighting Illini, you never would have known it.
“Once the first hit happened, once the first completion got out of the way, I was fine,” Gabbert said. “It felt good, but I couldn’t have done it without the offensive line. They blocked their tails off all day.”
Fine might be a bit of an understatement.
Gabbert completed 25 of 33 passes for 319 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran for another in the fourth quarter.
The sophomore distributed the ball to a variety of offensive weapons. Eight Tigers caught at least one pass, with senior wide receiver Danario Alexander leading the way with 10 catches.
Gabbert also connected on key catches with receivers Jared Perry and sophomore Wes Kemp.
Kemp’s 49-yard score in the first quarter was the first touchdown catch of his college career. It was also Gabbert’s first touchdown pass.
“We’re both happy. His first touchdown throw, my first touchdown catch, so it was pretty good,” Kemp said. “People didn’t know what to expect from him, and he ended up playing a great game. He is becoming more of a leader every day, and is a great person on and off the field.”
The offseason was filled with questions on how the Tigers would replace the offensive production from the past two seasons. Chief among those was what to expect from the quarterback position.
As anxious fans fretted about the upcoming season, coach Gary Pinkel was steadfast in his belief of Gabbert.
“I told my friends, ‘I don’t know if he’s going to play that well this game, but I’m just telling you, this guy can play,’” Pinkel said. “He is very, very gifted. And I’ve known this for a long time. I can go on and on about the quarterbacks that I’ve coached, but he’s as talented of a guy as I’ve ever seen.”
In 2007, Gabbert became the first five-star recruit to commit to Missouri. But along with that lofty ranking came lofty expectations that he would continue the strong tradition of Tiger quarterbacks.
“He’s become a very good, accurate thrower,” offensive coordinator David Yost said. “I think he used to rely on that big arm he has, which he showed a few times today. But his accuracy and using his feet and understanding where to go with the ball have really improved. And he really understands coverages he sees as well as anybody I’ve worked with, and he got a lot of that from Chase Daniel.”
The starting debut could not have gone much better. Even as well as Gabbert played, he was quick to credit the entire team for Saturday’s 37-9 victory.
“Coming out with a win, that’s all you can ask for,” Gabbert said. “It doesn’t matter about individual stats, you just have to win the football game.”
Pinkel was impressed by his quarterback’s performance but said more is on the way.
“Talent doesn’t make a great quarterback,” Pinkel said. “It allows you to do some things, but what allows you to be a great quarterback is your heart, your competitiveness, your toughness. You win at quarterback because of what’s in you. And that’s what I’m more excited about.”