Illinois comeback too little, too late

Redshirt freshman quarterback Eddie McGee throws the ball during the game against Missouri at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis on Saturday. McGee was a substitute for injured starter Juice Williams. Erica Magda

Redshirt freshman quarterback Eddie McGee throws the ball during the game against Missouri at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis on Saturday. McGee was a substitute for injured starter Juice Williams. Erica Magda

By Jason Grodsky

With Illinois’ starting quarterback knocked out of the game in the second quarter and trailing 37-13 late in the third quarter, the season opener looked to be a lost cause for the Illini.

But the Illini refused to go quietly against Missouri in St. Louis, scoring 21 straight points to pull within three of the Tigers.

Illinois’ comeback fell just short, however, as Missouri senior safety Cornelius “Pig” Brown intercepted a pass from redshirt freshman quarterback Eddie McGee on the one-yard line to allow the Tigers to hold on to a 40-34 victory.

“It’s hurtful because a loss is a loss, but we can learn from this,” said senior safety Kevin Mitchell. “We have to eliminate giving teams points, especially when we play good teams like Missouri.”

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The Tigers had built a 17-point lead courtesy of three Illini fumbles in the first half, one of which was returned 100 yards for a touchdown by Brown.

Following a 66-yard punt return by Missouri redshirt freshman receiver Jeremy Maclin, the Tigers’ lead had grown to 37-13 and the Illini looked as if they were down and out.

But suddenly all of the bad breaks that were going against the Illini started going their way.

McGee replaced sophomore quarterback Juice Williams midway through the second quarter after Williams suffered a head injury scrambling in Missouri territory. McGee found the end zone for the first time in his career with a 16-yard touchdown run.

After a Missouri fumble, the Washington, D.C. native found the end zone less than two minutes later, this time through the air, hitting junior Kyle Hudson with a 41-yard touchdown pass.

“Our team’s motto this year is ‘believe,’ and at halftime nobody had a doubt in their mind that we were going to come back no matter what the score was,” senior receiver Jacob Willis said.

In the first game of his career, McGee threw for 257 yards and one touchdown on 17-of-31 passing and added 23 rushing yards and one touchdown on eight carries, but also fumbled twice and threw two interceptions.

“I was hoping Juice wasn’t hurt badly because he’s a great quarterback, but when I had to go in and my time was called I knew I needed to step up,” McGee said. “I was very nervous the first time I was out there and everything was going very fast, but as the game went on things started to slow down.”

While Missouri benefited from Illinois turnovers, it was the Illini that took advantage of a fumble forced by Illini senior safety Justin Sanders that was recovered by junior defensive lineman Derek Walker on the Tigers’ four yard line.

The turnover set up a four-yard touchdown run by junior running back Rashard Mendenhall that pulled Illinois to within 37-34.

That would be the last time the Illini put points on the scoreboard.

The Tigers added a field goal and kept the Illini out of the end zone with two interceptions to close out the game and send the Illini home with their first loss in a season opener in three years.

“That’s a very good football team and we played them toe-to-toe,” head coach Ron Zook said. “It was a game that could’ve gone either way, and our guys hung in there. But until we stand up and say ‘that’s enough’ we’re still going to have this sick feeling.”

Despite a 20-tackle effort by senior linebacker J Leman, the Illini struggled to match up against Missouri’s tight end duo.

Senior Martin Rucker and junior Chase Coffman gave the Illini defense trouble all day, combining for 128 yards receiving and one touchdown to contribute to Daniel’s 359 yards passing and three touchdowns.

“They are going to catch a million balls against anybody they play,” Zook said. “Their quarterback is extremely accurate and that offense was the same offense that finished seventh in the nation last year, and they have almost everybody back. We just couldn’t wrap them up and didn’t tackle as crisp as we can and need to.”