ST. LOUIS -- Illinois’ first special teams play of the year went fine: Arrelious Benn returned the season’s opening kickoff 23 yards to ILL’s 28-yard line.
Illinois’ first offensive play of the year went fine: The Illini spread out five receivers on the line, Juice Williams took a shotgun snap, dropped back and fired to Florida transfer Jarred Fayson for an easy 11 yards.
Illinois’ first defensive play of the year went fine: With Missouri pinned back at its own 7, defensive tackle Josh Brent crashed through the line and dropped RB Derrick Washington for a 2-yard loss.
As for all of the other plays on Saturday at Edward Jones Dome? Well, they didn’t work out so well in Illinois’ thorough 37-9 defeat.
Before we hit all of the low notes, let’s give Illinois coach Ron Zook his say. Basically, he opened his postgame address by telling us the Illini had a great camp, had a great week of practice, had a scary good walkthrough here Friday afternoon. And then came the game.
“I sure wouldn’t have thought we’d play like that,” Zook said. “I’m embarrassed with it, but I’m definitely not getting ready to throw in the towel. I think our guys will come back. I know our guys will come back and fix some things. There’s certain things we’ve got to get our finger on to understand why we played the way we played.”
Let’s touch on those certain things, shall we?
Senior RB Daniel Dufrene, the team’s top non-Juice rusher last year with 663 yards and 5.7 average, was a game-time decision after spraining his right ankle last year. Zook decided not to play Dufrene, whose ankle was wrapped heavily.
Benn went out after the game’s fourth play with an unspecified ankle injury and didn’t return. Juice Williams expressed confidence that Benn would play next week against Illinois State, suggesting it was a “precautionary” thing today. Perhaps, but Benn didn’t exactly stick around long on the sidelines after suffering his injury. If I had to read the tea leaves -- and perhaps I’ve listened too much recently to Lovie Smith’s deliberately optimistic injury updates when he already knows otherwise -- I’m thinking Benn suffered more than a sprain.
Sophomore RB Jason Ford, who started in Dufrene’s spot, didn’t play after the game’s first series due to an ankle injury of his own. There’s no word on his status, either, though he wasn’t zipped off to the locker room.
The aforementioned Fayson, who had a team-high 4 catches for 50 yards in his Illini debut, missed almost all of the third quarter with what was described as cramps. Whatever it was, Fayson jogged to the locker room and then returned to see a few reps in the fourth quarter. He even went in as a punt returner, so he must be OK.
When NFL scouts (and there were six of them here today) visit the Illinois camp or watch some Illini tape, they can’t help but notice senior wide receiver Jeff Cumberland’s incredible size (6-foot-5, 255 pounds) and athleticism. And now, having seen this game, they’ll understand why Cumberland caught all of 48 passes for 827 yards and 8 TDs in his first three years.
Juice Williams finally threw Cumberland’s way on Illinois’ first second-half drive. Cumberland made the catch, ran to Mizzou’s 25 and fumbled away the ball. Juice threw twice more to Cumberland on the day. Both times, he dropped the pass.
Juice, meanwhile, finished 18 of 28 for 179 yards, 1 interception and no touchdowns. As Zook pointed out, the interception wasn’t his fault as his fastball over the middle went right through sophomore WR A.J. Jenkins’ hands. Juice also had two Cumberland drops and two intelligent throwaways while on the run. He also fired wildly toward Chris Duvalt on two short passes where “Duvvy” had no chance. There was a third pass where it was hard to tell whether Duvalt simply didn’t make the open grab _ or if Juice made an erratic throw.
In any case, NFL scouts want to see Juice improve his accuracy. I don’t think they had their questions answered today, especially since the Illini almost never threw medium and deep in sticking with their plan.
“We didn’t come into the game thinking we were going to try to throw deep a lot,” Zook said. “We wanted to control the game, run the ball and run a controlled passing game and try to keep their offense off the field.”
That turned out to be a wise idea because Illinois’ defense did a fine job of getting itself off the field with poor play.
Missouri piled up 442 total yards and didn’t turn over the ball. Missouri scored on 7 of its 9 drives with its regulars in the game. Missouri basically did what it wanted as Illinois’ nickel defense didn’t look like it knew how to defend wide receiver screens and virtually everything in the Tigers’ usual arsenal.
“They didn’t do anything we hadn’t seen,” said co-defensive coordinator Dan Disch. “They just did it well.”
When Zook was asked about the secondary’s play after the game, he took an uncharacteristic long pause before offering an answer.
“Uh……..I thought a couple times we didn’t get off blocks on the corners,” Zook said. “And then Donsay made some mistakes that he can’t make. All of them except Garrett (Edwards) _ Garrett played pretty well _ but all of the other three safeties, they made mistakes that cost us. Big mistakes….Can Donsay play better than that? Absolutely.”
Senior safety Donsay Hardeman gave up 2 touchdowns and he also allowed a short pass to become a huge 31-yard gain when he tried to level a big blow on WR Danario Alexander without, uh, bothering to use his arms to wrap him up.
“My performance, I was very disappointed,” Hardeman said. “Defense as a whole, I thought we played all right for the most part of it.”
Hardeman also received an early 15-yard penalty when he hit WR Jared Perry a second after he dropped a pass thrown behind him. Interestingly, Hardeman revealed that an official talked to him before the game about his hits. He picked up a few 15-yard penalties last year for drilling guys with either his shoulder or facemask.
“Before the game, me and the ref talked. He told me about my penalty points. He told me, ‘No hits to the head. No putting your head down.’ He told me as long as I hit from the neck on down and keep my head up, I’ll be fine. I had a couple penalties, but I had a couple good hits.”
Sophomore linebacker Ian Thomas piled up 13 tackles in his first college start. Martez Wilson earned 9 stops in his first start at MLB.
Illinois didn’t allow Missouri to return a punt or kick for a touchdown for the first time in three years. Junior punter Anthony Santella, now armed with a scholarship, punted 5 times for a 39.8-yard average. More important, he forced 3 fair catches and Illinois’ net punting average was a stellar 39.2. So that’s something to get excited about.