01 September 2010
Missouri has owned this rivalry since the days of Brad Smith (AP photo).
When Missouri runs the ball: Draw
This is the biggest unknown of this match-up. Rewind to a week ago, and I'd give the edge to Missouri. With Kendial Lawrence, no one knows exactly what they're getting. He looked good in fall camp, but who knows what he'll do against Illinois? Maybe he'll emerge as a star the way Brad Smith, Jeremy Maclin, and Derrick Washington did against the Illini. Maybe Mizzou will abandon the run without Washington in the game. No one knows for sure.
It doesn't hurt that the Illini defense isn't very good. In 2009 Illinois' defense was awful (91st in yards per game average. Mizzou was 64th for comparison). They return three linebackers including Martez Wilson who is on the Butkus Award watch list. However, he's coming off an injury that cost him the final 11 games of last season. As a homer, I lean toward giving the edge to Mizzou, but there are too many unknowns to do so with any confidence.
When Missouri throws the ball: Missouri
Gabbert could put last year's numbers against Illinois to shame on Saturday.
This one on the other hand, is a no-brainer. I don't care who the receivers are for Missouri, the passing game will be Mizzou's best weapon in this game. Give me Blaine Gabbert against the depleted Illinois secondary any day. The Illini already lost their best defensive player in pre-season All Big Ten cornerback Terry Hawthorne to injury. Also out with an injury is starting safety Supo Sanni. In fact, they're so depleted by injuries that Ron Zook has moved three former offensive players to defense to help the secondary. With Missouri's experienced and talented offensive line, Gabbert will have all day to pick apart an Illini secondary that was decent before the injuries, and much worse with them. Blaine's going to have a big day.
When Illinois runs the ball: Illinois
Running the ball is the strength of this Illinois team. Last season, running backs Mike Leshoure and Jason Ford combined for more than 1,300 yards and both averaged more than six yards per carry. They both return this season and Leshoure is on the Doak Walker Award watch list. Their offensive line is not a strong point (only two returning starters will play against Missouri), but new offensive coordinator Paul Petrino says he's determined to run the ball. Last year Petrino coordinated Arkansas' 37 ppg attack. Throw in quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase's mobility and Mizzou's questions at defensive tackle and this is one area Illinois has an advantage.
When Illinois throws the ball: Missouri
Scheelhaase was at one point an MU recruiting target. When Scheelhaase turned down Mizzou, the Tigers went out and got Ashton Glaser.
When was the last time you saw anyone give the Missouri pass defense an edge over anybody? Well, if this were almost any other BCS conference opponent, I wouldn't. However, I have even less faith in the Illini passing game than I do in the Mizzou pass defense. If the off-season is any indication, the Mizzou secondary is improved. They're playing more physically, Carl Gettis had the best off-season of his life according to coaches, and Kevin Rutland and Kip Edwards are ready to break out as upper-echelon Big 12 corners.
However, this is less about Missouri and more about Illinois. They're trotting out a first time starting quarterback, who is definitely talented, but still inexperienced. I'm not going to act like I know a lot about Nathan Scheelhaase. I don't. But in the videos I've seen of him this off-season, he seems to hang on to the ball too long before throwing it. Meanwhile, Illinois' starting receivers have even less experience than Missouri's. They've combined for 26 career catches. Perhaps most important, is the fact Illinois returns only two starters on the offensive line (a third is out with injury).
An inexperienced line + a QB who holds the ball too long + Aldon Smith and co. = plenty of help for the MU secondary.
Special Teams: Draw
This is a relatively unknown area for Illinois. They return a kicker in Derek Dimke who was 5-5 on field goal attempts last season filling in for a guy who was benched after starting the season 4-11. Illinois had the
most overrated I mean, "greatest" kick returner in Arrelious Benn last season and still managed to almost zero big plays in the return game. Their longest return went for 40 yards.
Meanwhile, Missouri is set at kicker, but Grant Ressell has been far from perfect this off-season. Then again, he wasn't so good pre-season last year and he turned out alright. Missouri's return game was less than exciting last season and with the same return men, I don't see big changes occurring there. Mizzou also has to replace Jake Harry who was arguably the nation's best punter last season.
I'll let history speak for itself. Gary Pinkel is 8-0 in his last eight home openers, 5-0 against Illinois, and 3-0 against Ron Zook. Last year, Illinois supposedly had a more talented team and Zook still managed to coach them to a four touchdown loss. Say what you want about Gary Pinkel, but he gets his team ready to play week one.
Google Ron Zook and this is the first thing that comes up.
This is the final year of the Arch Rivalry and it'll end like it started - with a Tiger victory. Missouri is more talented, historically better coached, and battling fewer key injuries than Illinois. The wild card is the Derrick Washington situation. Is it a huge distraction to this team or has it pulled them closer together? Either way, if Mizzou can play at a level near, or at its best, they're walking away winners.
Mizzou: 38 Illinois: 20
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