Young players display maturity but must take better care of ball

By Daniel Johnson

While it was nowhere near the desired result, you would be hard pressed to ask for a better game than the inaugural ‘Arch Rivalry’ on Saturday.

The Missouri offense did exactly what it wanted to, letting quarterback Chase Daniel pass with the efficiency that led them to the eighth-ranked total yardage offense in the nation last year. Daniel had 54 passing attempts that yielded 358 yards, including 17 completions for a combined 128 yards to the tight end combination of Chase Coffman and Martin Rucker.

As consistent as Daniel was, the Illini quarterbacks were more or less the opposite. Before being knocked out of the game, Juice Williams was starting to show some of the maturity that he had talked about gaining throughout the summer. After a less than textbook scramble, Juice fired a pass to freshman wide receiver Brian Gamble on a third and two that seemed to be indicative of what the quarterback could capable of.

Although the game-ending hit on Juice could have easily been avoided by a slide, Mizzou defensive back Hardy Ricks couldn’t fight the urge to lead with his helmet and put Juice out.

Enter Eddie McGee.

While McGee does have a year of experience thanks to his redshirt season last year, it was obvious early on that he was not ready for the pressure. After recovering his own fumble on his second series, McGee made his first of four turnovers – a fumble that Cornelius “Pig” Brown returned for a touchdown.

While it is hard to put too much blame on McGee as he was unexpectedly thrust into the situation, he has to take responsibility for his turnovers. It is nearly impossible to expect to win the game if you give the opposing team four extra possessions. If McGee could have hung on to either of his fumbles, the game would have been severely different.

That being said, I was impressed with the poise McGee displayed at times during the second half. Not every play was perfect, but he was serviceable enough to keep the Illini in the game until they could get their offensive bearings set.

Although McGee did help to make things close, the only reason the offense ever had a chance to get back into the game in the first place was the play of the defense. The score isn’t indicative of how well the defense played, especially when you consider that up to 24 of the points that Missouri scored could be chalked up to turnovers and special teams play.

Most everyone on campus knows that J Leman is one of the leaders of the defense, and the more avid fans of football probably know that he is a big part of the reason for high expectations coming into this year. While he isn’t the flashiest of players, he had a vintage J Leman game: a quiet 20-tackle game, if there is such a thing.

There were only two defensive sacks for the Illini, but for a combined negative 26 yards, they were both important in their own right. The sack from Justin Sanders keyed the fumble recovery by defensive end Derek Walker and lead to running back Rashard Mendenhall’s second rushing touchdown of the day.

On Missouri’s fourth drive in the fourth quarter, Sanders was involved in a play that was an aggravating microcosm of how the team had played all day.

On a third and seven from their own 26-yard line, Sanders broke through on a safety blitz, hurdling Missouri running back Tony Temple’s attempted block, but was unable to slow his momentum and shot past Daniel. Daniel was in the shotgun at the time and the potential sack would have forced the Tigers to punt to the Illini from deep within their own territory, providing Zook’s offense with ideal position and more clock to work with.

The play, as the game, was not to be, though.

Every player and coach will tell you there isn’t such thing as an “encouraging loss,” especially with all of the close games last year. But this game may have been just that.

There is no way that the Illini team from the first game of the year last year would have been able to do anything near what happened on Saturday.

Daniel Johnson is a junior in Communications. He can be reached at [email protected]