Memory Lane: Illini-Tigers in St. Louis

EACH WEEK, WE'LL TAKE A LOOK BACK AT A MEMORABLE MOMENT IN ILLINI HISTORY, THANKS TO THE WORDS OF THE NEWS-GAZETTE.

This week: With Missouri and Illinois taking a break in their football series, a look at the four games played in St. Louis, courtesy Loren Tate.

Aug. 31, 2002

Missouri 33, Illinois 20

Headline: Many Illinois weaknesses exposed in lopsided loss

ST. LOUIS

Give the pollsters their due.

While legions of Illinoisans, including this misguided toiler, blamed the UI's low football ranking on traditional oversight, Missouri took a page from Northwestern's book on inspiration and soundly spanked the overconfident Illini on Saturday.

Don't blame the 33-20 defeat on some sort of dome jinx.

Don't harangue on the quarterback position, although the comparison with Mizzou's rookie sensation, Brad Smith, was shocking.

Don't point to anything except fundamental football in which Mizzou broke more tackles, confused the Illini blocking protection with a series of blitzes and whipped the Illini in virtually every category, including plain old grit.

For example, Urbana's Matt Minnes did a good job punting. He averaged nearly 40 yards on seven kicks. But Marcus James repeatedly sidestepped the UI Ògunners," and his 71 yards on returns substantially altered field position.

Virtually every statistic revealed an Illini weakness.

Smith and Zack Abron led a 285-yard rushing attack that left Illini defenders grasping and gasping. If several aspects of the game were surprising, none was more so than this. It had been assumed, incorrectly, that Illinois could turn Mizzou into a one-dimensional team with a rookie being forced to throw. This never happened. Smith was an efficient 14 for 23 on passes and was never sacked by an Illini defense that recorded 40 sacks in 2001.

By contrast, two UI quarterbacks completed 18 of 42 passes, Dustin Ward appearing shaky in the formative stages when his receivers were bungling opportunities as well.

End-to-end dominance

Missouri attacked from the opening kickoff, marching 77 yards without much resistance. And it appeared the Tigers would put TDs back to back until Abron fumbled the ball to Marc Jackson at the UI 35.

Illinois enjoyed some luck in tying the score at 7 when Ward was hit as his pass flew high and deep to a readjusting Brandon Lloyd. The 43-yard catch and an interference penalty set up the score, but the Tigers were just beginning to discover Illinois was not prepared to handle their all-out blitz package.

And it was a fearsome hit on Ward by Antwaun Bynum that broke the last tie (14-14) as Kankakee's James Kinney hesitatingly returned the loose ball 46 yards to provide inspiration for two more ramrod marches by Mizzou at the outset of the fourth quarter.

ÒThe team that deserved it won the game," UI coach Ron Turner said. ÒWe were tentative offensively, playing `not to lose' and showing no sense of purpose or determination. Offensively, we had no edge."

On the subject of blitzes, Turner claimed UI failures were not associated with lack of preparation.

ÒSometimes they brought more than we could block, and the quarterback has to know that and react properly," he said. ÒWe executed on the first series after the second-half kickoff (to tie it at 14), but we didn't follow through. At times we (the blockers) just didn't recognize what was happening."

The Fighting Tigers

Illini regulars agreed, almost to a man, that it wasn't a lack of preparation. But no one would argue that, for whatever reason, Missouri had a clear edge in inspiration.

ÒWe expected to win," Antoineo Harris said, Òbut they attacked us and we laid down. We rolled over, and they put it to us. It wasn't as much their scheme as it was our inability to focus."

Fullback Carey Davis echoed those sentiments: ÒI want to take a look at the tape to see what was happening to us. We worked on those blitzes, and they still got through. A couple of times, it was my man. They were inspired, and we were flat. This was a wakeup call."

What did we learn? No. 1, Mizzou is stronger and, with an Antwaan Randle El model at QB, considerably faster than a year ago. Defensively, the Tiger front four allowed one rush of more than 10 yards, a burst of 12 by Harris.

It was a rough, hard-to-swallow afternoon.

But we are reminded that, 19 years ago, the Illini lost to Missouri in the opener and won the next 10 in a row.

A repeat of that requires a huge imagination, based on what took place Saturday, but this game will be a distant memory when Michigan comes calling late this month. Win that, and anything leading up to that is forgiven.

 

Aug. 30, 2003

Missouri 22, Illinois 15

Headline: Star is born in defeat

ST. LOUIS

A star was born Saturday amid the tear-stained disappointment of another Illini dome loss to Missouri.

For the first time in years, the UI boasts a cerebral speedster with swivels inside of wiggles, with evasive instincts that come boiling up from the genes and with sturdy legs complemented by the soft hands of a pickpocket.

Don't ask him how he does it. There's no formula. E.B. Halsey just reacts.

For Illinois, the premier rushers of late have been broad-shouldered, thick-chested bruisers like Thomas Rooks, Howard Griffith, Robert Holcombe and Antoineo Harris. More than 200 pounds and bulging. Power guys of the Jim Grabowski mold.

Coach Ron Turner knew he possessed a guy with that special talent when Halsey made his belated arrival from New Jersey in January. Morris Virgil has more pure speed, and Turner kept the Urbana sophomore running No. 1 right up to Saturday. But Halsey spurted 19 yards midway in the first quarter, and this was different.

Like a Jim Edmonds catch. Like a Sammy Sosa swing. Special.

Quarterback Jon Beutjer realized immediately he had a new workhorse.

Game of inches

For perhaps the first time in history, and certainly since 1945, a pure freshman topped 100 yards rushing in his first game. More than that, the 5-foot-11, 190-pounder caught six passes to go with his glistening 139 yards on 20 carries.

When Illinois lost 22-15, part of the story was the yard Halsey didn't get. On the first play of the fourth quarter, with Illinois facing fourth and 1 at the Mizzou 15, Halsey dove straight ahead but came up inches short.

"I should be able to make a yard," he said. "I put my head down and dove. It wasn't a great spot (by the official), but I shouldn't make it that tough for the ref."

That's just part of the story of the team that woulda, coulda, shoulda. In addition to its lone fourth-quarter TD, the UI penetrated to Mizzou's 23, 20, 26, 14, 15 and 23 .. and walked away with a mere 15 points. More than 60 percent of the country (on ABC) nodded in nonsurprise. Illinois lost again.

Statistics don't really matter. Mizzou led 7-3 at the quarter and didn't have a first down. So what?

What matters is playing without a turnover (Mizzou) while a rookie UI receiver (Melvin Bryant) fumbles away potential points on the Tigers' 20-yard line. What matters is executing 60 minutes with 10 yards in penalties (Mizzou) while your jumpy tackle (Bucky Babcock) leads the Illini toward seven crucial backfires. What matters is flawless execution of the kicking game (Mizzou) whilethe UI punting unit (poor line play) is blowing a block and handing over the ball inside the 5.

What matters is a nimble quarterback (Brad Smith) who can take his team all the way when the chips are down while the opposition (Illinois) is unable to capitalize on a 23-12 margin in first downs and a 411-223 edge in yards.

Positive vibes

All things evaluated, this can be a very good Illini football team.

Agile Mike O'Brien played every defensive down for a fiercely resistant front four. Matt Sinclair had 12 tackles, and the rejuvenated secondary permitted 102 yards passing.

Offensively, the aerial game was as efficient as expected, even if the backs turned out to be the primary receivers.

But the area of greatest hope lies with a darting halfback who will set about the business of compensating for the fact that, unlike Missouri, the Illini don't have a running quarterback.

"E.B. is a football player," Turner said. "We knew from his high school film and from his play in the spring. He's smart, he's versatile and he's a winner. We're going to win a lot of games with E.B.

"I love the way he responds. We still believe in Virgil, but he tweaked his ankle. I thought E.B. got into a rhythm in the third quarter, and we stayed with him."

During the first three series after halftime, Halsey ran or caught the ball 17 times, the Illini marching deep twice before producing their only TD on a short pass to Kelvin Hayden.

"This was a game we should have won," Hayden said. "We shot ourselves in the foot. It's tough, but you always try to take something positive from it.

"I thought we were taking charge in the third quarter. I thought our line was wearing them down and getting a good push, and I was able to find some lanes. Once you get in a groove, you can read the blocks better. It's just a split-second thing where you react and try to make the first guy miss. We pride ourselves in not letting one guy tackle us. We don't want to see that on the film."

That sets Halsey apart. His stop-go moves in tight circumstances along the line are special.

"I enjoyed having the ball that much," he said. "Coach Turner likes to throw to the backs. He likes to create mismatches. Missouri was playing deep, so we just caught the ball underneath. I was never really nervous. It was a lot of fun."

Fun, that is, until Mizzou turned the tables. Down 15-14 midway in the fourth quarter, the Tigers brought back Illini memories of Penn State in 1994 and Michigan in 2000, both 35-31 losses in which the Illini defense melted under memorable final drives.

But the Illini can take something from this setback: Halsey is the real deal.

 

Sept. 1, 2007

Missouri 40, Illinois 34

Headline: 'Close doesn't cut it'

ST. LOUIS – Imagine the anticipation in a dome madhouse when you've reached the Missouri 22-yard line with a minute to go, having already reduced a 37-13 deficit to 40-34.

History is begging. A touchdown and extra point would bring about the most remarkable comeback in Illini annals.

Substitute quarterback Eddie McGee was making 62,352 fans forget his early mistakes. Rashard Mendenhall and Daniel Dufrene were a strong 1-2 punch. The receivers were hanging on.

When Missouri's Jeff Wolfert missed a late 47-yard field goal by a few feet to the left, all the momentum had swung to the Illini. Opportunity clanged, especially when Arrelious Benn caught a third-down pass after the play clock hit :00.

Then came the last boomerang. McGee rejected the underneath receiver and went for the jugular, forcing the ball into double coverage on the goal line. It was intercepted.

That's the play that will be remembered. That and McGee's three fumbles shortly after he replaced an injured Juice Williams early in the second quarter. If a single play turned momentum, it happened when McGee stretched for the goal line, coughed it up and watched Pig Brown race 100 yards on the fumble return.

'That was a 14-point turnaround,' coach Ron Zook said.

Pass on performance

That makes the UI comeback all the more impressive. But concerns here go a lot deeper. Put simply, the Illini were passed silly.

They permitted 37 completions by Tiger junior Chase Daniel. That's 15 more than any passer completed against Illinois last year.

This wasn't old-time, hard-nosed football. This resembled summer 7-on-7 drills. You know, glorified touch football .. or basketball on artificial turf.

Daniel threw 54 times. He hit seven receivers, completing 17 to his powerhouse tight ends, Martin Rucker and Chase Coffman. Notebook notations alongside five of those early Daniel strikes were the same: "Wide open! Wide open!" And it continued throughout.

Plenty to work on

Analyzing the pass coverage inadequacies, co-coordinator Curt Mallory offered: "When you play a team like this, you have to keep them in front of you, accept some yardage and make sure you don't give up the big plays. We didn't want them to get over the top. We need to get better, and we need to improve our tackling, too."

Sending down defensive calls from the press box, Mallory said the organization aspect was good despite the summer loss of defensive coordinator Vince Okruch.

"They spread us out, and they hurried us. But our group has spent a lot of time together, and we were all on the same page."

Co-coordinator Dan Disch explained that it was hard to pressure Daniel.

"It really was like 7-on-7," Disch agreed. "We tried to get after the quarterback, but he slipped away (or got the pass off) just when we thought we had him."

J Leman would not accept credit for "coming close." After all, Illinois has lost eight straight, and seven of them were by 11 points or less. The eighth was to Penn State, 26-12, in a game Illinois trailed 17-12 in the last two minutes.

"Close doesn't cut it," Leman said.

Leman was particularly upset about an apparent fumble recovery by UI safety Justin Sanders. Sanders fell on a ball that dropped between Coffman's legs, and after a long study, the Big 12 officials gave it to Missouri.

"I guess the legs count," Leman said. "I was sure Sanders had it."

Turnovers don't come easy for the Illini, even when they seemingly get them.

 

Aug. 30, 2008

Missouri 52, Illinois 42

Headline: There's hope despite defeat

ST. LOUIS – When it's pure basketball, Illinois has dominated Missouri in St. Louis.

But when it's "basketball" on artificial turf in an air-conditioned dome, Illinois is still no match.

The sixth-ranked Tigers set the tone with five straight pass completions in an opening touchdown drive and, once they had the Illini off balance, Chase Daniel & Co. built a 31-13 halftime lead and held off the spirited losers 52-42.

Illinois scored on the last play of the game – Juice Williams threw his fifth TD pass in a stunning 458-yard aerial performance – but the 52-point outpouring was the most points scored against Illinois in 119 openers.

So while Williams flashed his powerful arm with two long TD passes to both Will Judson and Chris Duvalt, and the final one to Michael Hoomanawanui, a surprisingly inept Illini defense never slowed the Tigers through the first three quarters.

Williams had to take the aerial route because Missouri refused to budge on the ground. In fact, Missouri held the two-time Big Ten rushing champs to minus yards on the ground in a first half in which the Tigers never punted. Ultimately, they outrushed the Illini 224-78, produced some big sacks and had a clear margin in special teams as (1) Illini freshman Matt Eller kicked low on his first extra point, (2) Tiger veteran Jeff Wolfert banged a 51-yard field goal as part of his 10 points, (3) Jeremy Maclin raced 99 yards on a kickoff for the go-ahead touchdown at 17-13 and rambled 46 yards on a punt return to set up another TD late in the third quarter.

The game appeared competitive early when Williams hit Judson barely inbounds for a 30-yard TD. And when big Illini defensive end Derek Walker picked off Daniel's errant pass and returned it 34 yards for the score, the 40 percent of the crowd wearing orange got excited. Illinois led 13-10 .. until the kickoff That's when the Illini made the fatal mistake of kicking deep to the fleet Maclin, who raced 99 yards unchallenged to ignite a three-TD Mizzou outburst before halftime.

Rushing attack grounded

It was debatable which Illini weakness was the most surprising, the inability to stop Missouri's calculated attack or the failure of the running game to get off the ground. There was a consistency about Daniel's work that was missing on the Illinois side, and the Missouri protection was vastly superior, but Williams hit so many bombs that Illinois came close to matching Missouri's overall yardage, 568-536.

Illinois expected to move on the ground even without Rashard Mendenhall, but it never materialized. The Tigers' veteran defense smothered Williams so thoroughly that he was helpless on options and scrambles. With a quarter to go and Illinois trailing 45-28, the premier QB runner in UI history was still minus yardage on the ground.

What we must concede is that Daniel, who finished fourth in Heisman Trophy voting last year, is the match of any passer in the country. Nor is he shy of receivers. Early in the second half, with Missouri ahead 31-13, tight end Chase Coffman caught a short pass, spun away from Brit Miller, broke a tackle, leapt over another Illini and shook off a fourth to complete a remarkable 21-yard gain.

It was clear by that point that Missouri, with 13 senior starters and an eye for the big trophy, was just too good .. even as the Illini threatened to charge back into contention Two interceptions by standout Mizzou linebacker Sean Weatherspoon turned back the Illini in the fourth quarter.

Deja blues

The result, while showing great promise offensively, was all too familiar to Illini fans who have so frequently seen their favorites enjoy a good season (9-4 last season) only to hit a snag at the outset of the next season.

Myriad recounts of Red Grange's greatness in 1924 overlook the fact that, as a senior in 1925, Illinois lost three of the first four games to Nebraska, Iowa and Michigan, being shut out in two of them. That, of course, is distant history, but this trend has popped up time and again throughout the decades.

As example, the unbeaten 1951 champs lost their first three Big Ten games in 1952. The next Rose Bowl team in 1963 had Dick Butkus, Jim Grabowski and a power-packed squad returning in 1964, reached No. 2 in the nation in the first two games but tailed off to 4-3 in the conference.

There were similar occurrences after the good seasons of 1983 and 1990 in which ranked UI teams failed to meet expectations, and the Ron Turner era quickly turned south after the Big Ten title in 2001.

But Illinois has lost early to Missouri in the past and recovered, and the aerial display by Williams provides that hope, even if the Illini defense left much to be desired. Perhaps it can be explained by the fact that Daniel and his mates are just too good.

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