Fri Sep 04 02:15pm EDT
The consensus among the oddsmakers is that Illinois should beat Missouri and avenge the losses of the past two years at the hands of Chase Daniel, Chase Coffman and Jeremy Maclin because, well, Daniel, Coffman, and Maclin are gone. The Fighting Illini return quarterback Juice Williams, a bevy of talented receivers and every expectation of kicking off a return to (relative) glory with a victory over the Tigers.
But, when your team is coached by Ron Zook, it is never quite so simple. Although Missouri lost an incredible amount of offense to the NFL, it's worth noting that Gary Pinkel's spread offense has mutated to accomodate not only Chase Daniel's skills, but also Brad Smith's before him. Mizzou's new triggerman will be the highly touted 6' 5" Blaine Gabbert, the top "pro style" quarterback recruit in the class of 2008, about whom the only thing we know for certain is that, in a pinch, his arm could be used to launch household objects into interstellar orbit.
Pinkel's Tigers have scored 40 and 52 points against Illinois the last two years, but much of the firepower responsible for those big totals is gone. And, while Pinkel (with the help of the now-departed offensive coordinator Dave Christensen) moved his offense from a run-first spread under Smith to a pass-first one under Daniel, Gabbert is far and away his least mobile quarterback in years. The running slack will have to be kept up by returning 1,000 yard rusher Derrick Washington, who, in '08, averaged a hefty 5.9 per carry and scored 17 touchdowns. Pinkel and new offensive coordinator Dave Yost will keep the offense simple for Gabbert, indicating over the summer that they'll add a "hitch" or short five-to-six yard throw by the sidelines on nearly every pass to give their young quarterback a place to go with the ball quickly and before the blitz can get him when it's open. But can the young signal caller lead an upset over the fighting Zookers?
That probably depends on whether Illinois plays like fighting Zookers or something more ... reliable. It's well documented in this space that the '08 Illini earned their losing record despite outgaining their opponents, regularly offsetting that effort with turnovers. For Juice Williams, last season's game against Mizzou was emblematic: Despite throwing for a career-high in yards and touchdowns against the Tigers, and showing flashes of poise and even occasional brilliance, Williams's two costly interceptions -- both by linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, one returned directly for a touchdown -- helped decide the game.
To win Saturday, Williams will need more help from the running game, whether that comes from someone among the underwhelming running back crop stepping up or new offensive coordinator Mike Shultz finding creative ways to get the ball to playmakers like Florida transfer Jarred Fayson, who the Illini would live to turn into their own version of Percy Harvin or, yes, Jeremy Maclin, reliable receivers who doubled as their team's most dangerous runners.
As with essentially every Illinois game of the Zook era, though, this one will hinge on which team turns it over the least; that will turn on which Juice Williams shows up, and how sharp Gabbert's growing pains are as assumes the glamour position of Missouri quarterback. If the last two years are any indication, this is another barnburner-in-waiting; if the first three years of the Zook-Juice collaboration are any indication, pretty much anything can happen here at any time, in anyone's favor. Whatever else you say about them, no one has ever accused the Illini of being boring.