Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Renewing traditions, beating Illinois

There was a buzz in downtown St. Louis on Saturday for the season opener. It had little to do with the usual 50-50 fan split of true neutral site games, as Mizzou fans significantly outnumbered the Illini. This was to be expected, as poor Illini fans are staring at what will likely be another lost, losing season.

Instead, that downtown energy was supplied mostly by Tiger fans’ enthusiasm to return to football season. The temperature was noticeably cooler, and as Tiger fans walked to the Edward Jones Dome in the morning for the 11:30 game, there was a hint of crispness in the air.

Everywhere you looked, black and gold crawled the streets around the dome. The car I was riding in pulled up next to Mizzou basketball coach Mike Anderson, who shared a “Go Tigers!” It was a Mizzou kind of day.

The game itself threatened to be an anticlimactic end to four straight years of Missouri beating Illinois in St. Louis, during which the series was dubbed the Arch Rivalry. Large swatches of empty seats were visible on Saturday, and the announced attendance of 58,000 was well below capacity.

Instead, due both to some doldrums by the Tigers and an inspired effort by the Illini, Illinois led for much of the game. Illinois scored first, clawed for a 13-3 halftime lead, and even led the Tigers going into the fourth quarter, 13-10. Trailing a team like Illinois in the fourth was clearly not on the Tigers’ agenda.

However, Missouri completed its rally and won, 23-13. The offense had some hitches, dropped passes and off-target throws, but first games are often used to get the bugs out, especially when you have a tempo-based offense like Missouri’s spread.

Missouri’s defense smothered Illinois in the second half, holding the Illini to just 85 yards and four first downs in the half as the Tigers slowly came back.

Holding Illinois to 13 points and 281 yards of total offense was an encouraging sign. Yes, Illinois appears to be a bad offensive team, and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase looked especially poor, but credit must go to the Tiger defense for making Illinois look bad.

It was also survival on a bizarre day for Big 12 teams. As your Mizzou friends may have told you (roughly 50,000 times), Kansas lost to Football Championship Subdivision team North Dakota State by the humbling score of 6-3, surely causing Mark Mangino to chuckle. Oklahoma needed a late interception to survive 31-24 against Utah State. Kansas State running back Daniel Thomas had nearly four times as many rushing yards as quarterback Carson Coffman has passing yards in the Wildcats’ win over UCLA.

Next Saturday Missouri faces FCS team McNeese State at 6 p.m. at Faurot Field. The Tigers can learn from the Jayhawks' humiliation and put the Cowboys away early. McNeese State made the FCS playoffs last year, so they could be scrappy. If Missouri can avoid excessive turnovers, however, there's no reason the Tigers shouldn't blow out the cowboys.

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