And they're off.......... The fall sports season at the University of Illinois, that is. When late August rolls around each year on the Urbana-Champaign campus, two things are certain. First, the students will all descend back on campus for the fall semester, and the sports teams will begin play in earnest as well. The Illini football team has been preparing for their opening game of the season for nearly a month now, and that day has finally arrived. The Illini took on Missouri in the State Farm Arch Rivalry Classic at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Missouri. The game began with the Illini having first possession, and moving the ball into Tiger territory before having to punt the football. Missouri started deep in their own territory and moved the ball pretty well against the Illini, something that a lot of teams were able to do a year ago. The 14 play, 79 yard drive ended with a 35 yard field goal for a quick 3-0 Tiger lead. Added to the fact was Arrelious "Regus" Benn, who hobbled off early in the game with an apparent injury. After a second straight punt by Anthony Santella, the Tigers took advantage of some shoddy tackling and penalties by the Illini to continue to move the football. Missouri added a touchdown on a blown coverage to increase their lead to 10-0. You might have thought that the Illini defense would have improved over last season, but early on, that was not the case at all.
However, on the very next Illini drive, Williams finally got it together and drove down deep in Missouri territory, where the Illini had to settle for a field goal by Matt Eller to cut the lead to 10-3. The teams traded drives with nothing doing, then Illinois got the ball again and was driving before Juice Williams threw an interception that was returned deep into Illini territory. That drive resulted in a Missouri field goal from 43 yards out to extend the Tiger lead to 13-3. It was evident at that point that the Illini were missing Benn, who did not return in the first half.
Even a brief quarterback switch to Eddie McGee didn't seem to help, although the Illini did drive deep before coming to grips with a 4th and 1, which ended in a drop back fall by Williams to stall the drive. On Missouri's next possession, they drove down the field once again, taking up quite a bit of clock in the process to kick a field goal just before the half. That gave the Tigers a 16-3 lead into the locker room.
Coming out for the second half, Missouri picked up right where they left off as they moved the chains down the field to score yet another touchdown to build a commanding 23-3 lead. Wherever this potent Illini offense is, it appears that they were nowhere close to St. Louis.
After another Illini drive stalled, this time on a fumble, Missouri went right back down the field and scored again, making it 30-3 and seemingly put the game out of reach. The Illini looked really out of sync and lost at times, and it was reported during the second half that both Benn and Jason Ford left the game with ankle injuries and would not return.
This is not the way that Zook and the Illini wanted to start the season out, and now the Illini find themselves 0-5 in games in St. Louis and still winless against the Tigers. So, where do the Illini go from here? Zook has been saying for the past 4 years that they are not where they want to be as a team, but my question to that is, when does he plan to get there? He is getting some pretty good talent, but as losses continue to mount in big games, fandom starts to question coaching moves and then you have an unhappy Illini Nation on your hands. The change in offensive coordinators from Mike Locksley to Mike Schultz doesn't appear to show any difference, judging by the lackluster performance against the Tigers.
If there is one bright spot for the Illini, it is that they get a chance to redeem themselves against in-state rival Illinois State this coming Saturday evening in the home opener. The Redbirds, who are coached by former Purdue assistant Brock Spack, always seem to get up for Illinois and if the Illini aren't careful, they could get embarrassed at home. The possibility of this however, is unlikely, as the Illini players will be looking for a way to make a statement for their no-show performance in St. Louis. Whatever the case, it better happen quick before the fans start turning themselves away and start focusing on basketball, which is just a few short months away.