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Tigers crush Illini in season opener

Illinois head coach Ron Zook stressed two main objectives heading into the season opener against Missouri – limit turnovers and limit big plays on defense.

But critical turnovers and big plays by the Missouri offense resulted in a 37-9 loss to Missouri on Saturday. The Illini failed to heed the words of their coach, dropping their fifth straight game to the Tigers.

“Obviously, we have some work to do,” Zook said. “They know they aren’t as good as they think they are.”

Quarterback Juice Williams threw an interception in the second quarter that led to a Missouri field goal and later was tripped by his own offensive linemen on fourth-and-one on the Tigers’ 20-yard line. Wide receiver Jeff Cumberland ended the team’s first offensive drive in the second half with a fumble on the Missouri 41-yard line.

The Illini defense allowed the Tigers to register seven plays in which Missouri gained 20 yards or more, including a 46-yard touchdown by Jared Perry and a 49-yard touchdown by Wes Kemp.

“We weren’t playing with enough emotion, and some guys were letting up,” linebacker Martez Wilson said. “We just didn’t play enough with enough energy as we needed to as a defense. We have to play nasty.”

On the flip side, the Missouri defense surrendered just one play over 20 yards – a 24-yard pass from Williams to wide receiver Jarred Fayson in the second quarter. The completion set up Matt Eller’s 24-yard field goal for the Illini.

In his first collegiate start, Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert completed 25 of 33 passes, systematically picking apart the Illini defense for 319 yards. The sophomore also ran for 54 yards and tossed three touchdowns.

“Gabbert had an outstanding performance,” Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel said. “I’m very proud of him for how he prepared and how he competed.”

Williams pointed to the failure to convert on the fourth-and-one as a critical play in the game that was representative of the team’s entire performance.

“Plays like that really dictates what kind of day it was,” Williams said. “It was one of those days where you can’t get over the hump. Plays like that have to be made in order to execute.”

Zook still acknowledged brights spots from the game, pointing to the performance of sophomore running backs Mikel LeShoure and Troy Pollard. The duo combined for 76 yards on 15 carries, with LeShoure scoring the Illini’s only touchdown of the day on a one-yard scamper.

The Illini lost wide receiver Arrelious Benn and running back Jason Ford to sprained ankles during the first offensive possession, and running back Daniel Dufrene sat out with his own ankle injury. Fayson also missed time in the second half with cramps.

Zook downplayed the injuries, pointing to the second half of the upset over Ohio State in 2007. During the Illini’s 28-21 win over the then No. 1 Buckeyes, both Benn and cornerback Vontae Davis sat out the second half with injuries.

“In the game of football, you’re going to have adversity,” Zook said. “It’s how you handle adversity and its how you come back that’s going to determine the success you’re going to have.”

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