After an offseason of hearing critics doubt their ability to comeback from losing stars on offense and defense, the Tigers found a way to keep them quiet.
Solid performances on both sides of the ball enabled the Tigers to claw the Fighting Illini 37-9 in the Arch Rivalry Game.
“I think there was a little bit of an edge,” coach Gary Pinkel said of his team. “When we’ve lost as many players as we’ve lost the last couple years, and you keep reading about how we are going to replace them, I think that drove our focus a little bit.”
The victory is Missouri’s fifth in a row over Illinois and, perhaps more importantly, a confidence booster for a team tired of hearing the doubters.
“We come out and worked hard,” senior linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. “A lot of guys were tired of the naysayers. We were excited for the opportunity to show people what we could do.”
One of the biggest question marks was how sophomore Blaine Gabbert would fill the shoes of the graduating Chase Daniel. It didn’t take long for Gabbert to chip away at the doubts.
The Tigers scored on their first two possessions, the first coming on sophomore placekicker Grant Ressel’s field goal and the second coming on Gabbert’s first touchdown pass as a starter.
In his debut, Gabbert proved why he was picked to fill Daniel’s shoes.
The sophomore threw for 319 yards and three touchdowns, connecting on 25 of 33 attempts.
He added an 8-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that capped the scoring for both teams.
In the first quarter, Gabbert hooked up with sophomore wide receiver Wes Kemp for a 49-yard score that gave Missouri a 10-0 advantage, and the Tigers did not look back.
“It was a good ball by Blaine, good protection by the line,” Kemp said of the touchdown.
Gabbert connected with senior wide receiver Jared Perry and sophomore wide receiver Jerrell Jackson for his other two touchdown passes.
Ressel added two more field goals to supplement the Missouri attack.
Illinois got on the scoreboard with a field goal one minute into the second quarter but didn’t score again until the fourth quarter.
“We were pretty confident going into this that we could go out and play together and be successful” Weatherspoon said. “Coming out and starting fast, that was big for us. “
After torching Missouri for 451 yards in last year’s matchup, Illini senior quarterback Juice Williams was limited to much more modest numbers this year: 18 of 28 passing, 179 yards, no touchdowns and one interception.
Missouri’s defense shut down the rest of Illinois’ offense as well. The Tigers outgained Illinois’ total offense, 442 to 325.
Williams’ modest stats were compounded by the fact Illinois was without its all-american candidate junior Arrelious Benn for the second half due to injury.
Although Missouri might have surprised some people with its season-opening win, Pinkel said the team must retain its focus.
“The bigger game is going to be next week,” Pinkel said of Tiger opponent Bowling Green. “I told them in the locker room this is going to be the toughest Tuesday and Wednesday practices they’ve ever seen.”