ST. LOUIS — Good grief, Missouri is going to be difficult to be beat.
It's true: College football's Charlie Brown is fighting back. And the Tigers just may go unbeaten. No, Missouri's 52-42 victory over Illinois didn't earn the Tigers anything tangible, save for some bogus "Arch Rivalry" trophy handed over by an insurance guy whose company sponsored the event.
"You've got to give credit to Illinois. I thought they played a great game," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. "I thought (Illinois quarterback) Juice (Williams) played a phenomenal game, made a lot of plays."
But this night was all about the Tigers, a season-opening salvo that was the proverbial first step for Missouri in a season that could end up in the BCS Championship Game. And get used to mentioning formerly moribund Missouri in the same sentence as Ohio State, USC, Florida, Georgia and Oklahoma.
Take that J.C. Louderback. He was the referee who lost track of what down it was in Colorado's infamous 33-31 "Fifth Down" win over Missouri in 1990. Take that Matt Davison, whose outstretched arms cradled the game-winning touchdown pass – which bounced off Shevin Wiggins' foot – in a 45-38 overtime victory in 1997 vs. Missouri in what forever will be known as the "Flea-kicker."
Sprinkling more irony and ignominy over what forever will be two of college football's zaniest episodes is that Colorado and Nebraska went on to win the national title in the seasons of those infamous plays.
Now, you get the feeling the college football gods finally are ready to smile on this tortured program, which hasn't won a league title since 1969 (Big Eight).
There's Jeremy Maclin, streaking downfield with a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the second quarter. He finished with four catches for 32 yards, three kickoff returns for 145 yards (48.3 ypr) and three punt returns for 54 yards (18.0 ypr) before leaving late in the game with an ankle injury.
There's Derrick Washington, pinballing off hapless Illinois defenders on a 40-yard touchdown run later in the second quarter. He finished with 130 yards on 18 carries with two TDs.
MISSOURI 52, ILLINOIS 42
Following a close first quarter that ended with Missouri leading 7-6, the Tigers blew things open with a 24-point second quarter in what turned out to be a shootout featuring 1,104 yards of offense. With QBs Chase Daniel (314 yards passing) and Juice Williams (458) matching each other pass for pass, the difference was Missouri's ability to run. The Tigers rushed for 254 yards, the Fighting Illini 78.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF GAME
No doubt, Williams showed he has grown as a passer, hitting 26 of 41 attempts with five TDs and a pick. But Daniel was 26 of 43 for 314 yards with three touchdowns and an interception – and his team won. Daniel was at his best in the third quarter, with scoring passes to Tommy Saunders of 4 and 21 yards to build the Tigers' lead to 45-20. Even better, Daniel was sacked just once, while Williams was bagged five times.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF GAME
Missouri LB Sean Weatherspoon stepped up big in the fourth quarter, intercepting a pass with the Tigers leading 45-35 but the Illini driving. Later in the quarter, Weatherspoon stripped the ball from Illinois TB Daniel Dufrene and returned it 30 yards for a touchdown. He also had eight tackles.
Missouri's Jeremy Maclin raced 99 yards with a kickoff return for a touchdown, giving the Tigers a 17-13 lead they never relinquished. Moments earlier, Illinois DE Derek Walker had intercepted a Chase Daniel pass and ambled 34 yards for a touchdown and the lead.
Maclin suffered an ankle injury in the fourth quarter. The X-ray was negative, but there's no word on how long – or if – he'll be out.
Missouri has won four in a row vs. Illinois. The last Illini victory in the series was 42-0 in Champaign in 1994 with Lou Tepper at the helm. … In his past five games, Williams has thrown for 1,263 yards with 12 TDs. He also has rushed for 367 yards and three scores. … Maclin's kickoff return for a TD marked the second time in two years he has scored on a return against the Illini. Last season, he ran back a punt 66 yards for a TD. For his career, Maclin has four returns for TDs (two kickoffs and two punts).
There's Missouri linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, stripping the ball from Illinois tailback Daniel Dufrene and bolting 30 yards for an icing-on-the-cake touchdown to make it 52-35. Earlier in the quarter, Weatherspoon intercepted a pass with the Illini full of momentum and threatening Missouri's 45-35 lead.
And, oh, yes, there's Chase Daniel, lobbing a pretty 17-yard scoring strike to tight end Chase Coffman – who led the squad with nine grabs for 120 yards – late in the first half to give Missouri a 31-13 lead. Game over. Well, there was another half to play. But for all intents and purposes, this game was over.
"My players were real disappointed and that really upsets me a little bit," Pinkel said. "I've been in this business a long time and when you win, you enjoy it. We didn't play an average team out there. They're a real good football team."
Make no mistake about it: This is a Missouri team that's still plenty hungry. Winning the Big 12 North last season was an appetizer. The Tigers deserved to go to a BCS bowl even though they lost the Big 12 title game to Oklahoma. But Kansas got a BCS at-large bid to the Orange Bowl even though Missouri beat the Jayhawks 36-28 in the regular-season finale. The Tigers were shuffled off to the Cotton Bowl.
On this night, Missouri's offense picked up where it left off in the Cotton Bowl shredding of Arkansas. The Tigers took the opening kickoff and came out passing. Daniel was 5-for-5 for 50 yards in a 10-play, 67-yard drive that took 4:42 and was capped by a 7-yard touchdown run by Washington.
"It reminds me a lot of last year," Illinois coach Ron Zook said of that 40-34 outcome that featured the Illini roaring back from a big deficit but coming up short. "We're better than that, and we can't make the mistakes we made and get behind a team of that caliber and expect to be able to come back."
Southeast Missouri State, Nevada and Buffalo will be little more than morsels through September for Mizzou. A trip to Nebraska on Oct. 4 could be perilous; Missouri hasn't won in Lincoln since 1978. Still, the Tigers clearly will be the more talented team. No, the real test will be Oct. 18 at Texas.
Pinkel never has beaten the Longhorns (0-3) or Oklahoma (0-5), so until Missouri can slay one or both, it always will have a pang of doubt about itself.
And Missouri definitely must tighten a secondary that was burned for several long passes en route to yielding 458 yards passing and five TD strikes to Juice Williams. If the Tigers struggle vs. a still-developing Illinois passing attack – which connected on passes of 65, 30, 26, 25 and 24 yards — how will it fare vs. a Big 12 schedule that features the best collection of quarterbacks in the nation?
Woody Widenhofer (12-33-1 from 1985-88) wouldn't recognize these Tigers. Neither would Bob Stull (15-38-2 from 1989-93) or Larry Smith (33-46-1 from 1994-2000). And you can thank Pinkel for that. He's 50-37 in Columbia. Even better, he's just hitting his stride, owning a 28-12 mark the past three years – including Saturday's victory.
It wasn't always like this for Pinkel, who is now in his eighth season leading the Tigers. After a 5-6 record in 2004, Pinkel had a 22-25 mark with one bowl appearance. There was grumbling by some: "Pinkel needs to shake up his staff" and "Pinkel needs to go if he flops in 2005."
Pinkel never flinched, and neither did Missouri athletic director Mike Alden. Pinkel refused to change his staff and stayed the course.
Pinkel and his loyal band of assistants helped the Tigers finish 7-5 in 2005, including a victory over South Carolina in the Independence Bowl. An 8-5 record and Sun Bowl berth followed in 2006, and it all came together in last season's breakout 12-2 campaign that featured the program's first Big 12 North title. And each Pinkel assistant remains, an incredible feat in a peripatetic industry.
Every last detail appears to be in place for Missouri, which entered this season with its highest preseason ranking ever (No. 6 in The Associated Press poll). There's an underrated rushing attack led by Washington, a star move-the-chains tight end in Coffman, a big-play-waiting-to-happen in Maclin and a quick, aggressive and veteran defense.
But everything begins and ends with Daniel, the best passing quarterback in college football. Sure, Florida's Tim Tebow is the reigning Heisman winner, but he can't pass like Daniel. Neither can Georgia's Matthew Stafford, Texas Tech's Graham Harrell, Kansas' Todd Reesing or any other guy who will take a snap this fall. Seemingly every Daniel strike is on target.
Daniel was 26 of 43 for 314 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran nine times for 45 yards to kick-start Mizzou's season.
"I'll tell you one thing: you enjoy winning. You kidding me?" Pinkel said.