Thursday, September 2, 2010

Mizzou's focus returns to the field

The Missouri Tigers roll into their season-opener against Illinois in St. Louis after a month of injuries and off-the-field issues. Both a player and a coach were stopped for driving while intoxicated. Receiver Jerrell Jackson, counted on to fill some of the void left by Danario Alexander’s graduation, broke his hand. Linebacker Munir Prince had a scary temporary paralysis injury, though he appears to be recovering well.

And then came the cherry on top, the indefinite suspension of talented running back Derrick Washington following sexual assault allegations against him.

The irritation here, besides losing a pretty good running back for who knows how long, was the stubborn refusal by all officials involved to comment on the situation, or even explain what was going on. Coach Gary Pinkel, Athletic Director Mike Alden, team spokesman Chad Moller and the Boone County prosecutor, all employed by taxpayer-funded institutions, all refused to talk when the tough questions started being asked, with some issuing statements and vague confirmations days later. Pinkel became visibly irritated when asked about the situation, as though the suspension of a starting running back 10 days before the season-opener should be swept under the rug.

Although Washington was since “permanently suspended” (nice gesture to keep his school paid for, but he’s done playing), let’s do what the Tigers need to do and move on to the next opponent, Illinois. I’m so glad we can glad we can talk about the games now, when the Tigers will take the field for old Mizzou.

Missouri has routinely beaten Illinois in St. Louis, winning all five games since the series began playing there in 2002. Illinois has been pretty awful in five years under coach Ron Zook, who is either derisively or affectionately known as the Zooker. Zook is 21-39 at Illinois, including 12-28 in conference play and 0-5 in neutral-site games such as this one. Zook took his team to the Rose Bowl following a nine-win 2007 campaign. Aside from that, he has four losing seasons and plenty of unfulfilled expectations, given his recruiting success. Sports Illustrated picked Illinois to finish 10th in the Big Ten this year.

So Missouri is a decided favorite against the Illini. The game looks like such a sure win that it gives me pause. The neutral site may help fire up the Illini, along with this being their last chance to beat Missouri in St. Louis for a while. Also, Illinois almost has to be improved over last year’s 3-9 debacle of a team.

Illinois is probably better off with redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase at quarterback than Juice Williams, who was occasionally brilliant but too erratic. Cornerback Terry Hawthorne and defensive lineman Clay Nurse give the Illinois defense some teeth.

Additionally, Mizzou’s injuries and off-the-field distractions can’t have helped the team’s preparations.

All that being said, I still think the Tigers will start the season with a win against Illinois. If Missouri plays close to as good as they can, they should have too much talent for Illinois.

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