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Dissecting Missouri (23) – Illinois (13): Game Balls, Catcalls and Downfalls

Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase fumbles during the first quarter of the Illini's 23-13 loss to Missouri on Saturday afteroon. (Image via the Associated Press)

Before turning the page on Saturday’s loss to Missouri, here is Writing Illini’s post-game analysis of the Arch Rivalry defeat, which is a bit delayed given the Labor Day Weekend. In future weeks, these post-game thoughts will come on Sundays.

Without further ado, here’s what went wrong against Mizzou.

Final Score: Missouri 23, Illinois 13

Another opener has come and gone, with the Fighting Illini football team off to another 0-1 start and the Arch Rivalry series with Missouri mercifully over.

While the outcome was disappointing, yet not totally unexpected, the Illini can take some positives away from the matchup, as well as some things that need to be fixed ASAP.

Of course, there is no such thing as a moral victory in big-time collegiate athletics, but the Illini did play hard and gave an honest effort on Saturday, which was very encouraging to see considering the inability to live up to expectations or play with much urgency or pride during the last two seasons.

A Tale of Two Halves

Those who watched Saturday’s game or followed Writing Illini’s play-by-play know that the Illini seemed to do a 180° turnabout from the first half to the second.

With the exception of two Nathan Scheelhaase turnovers and some costly penalties in the red zone, Illinois played a great first half, much better than many people were expecting.

The Illini controlled the time-of-possession game in the first 30 minutes, holding Missouri to a three-and-out on the game’s first possession and then running off 9 minutes during a 17-play drive that resulted in a field goal and 3-0 Illinois lead.

New offensive coordinator Paul Petrino kept things simple but was not completely conservative, relying on the running strength of Mikel Leshoure, getting Scheelhaase out of the pocket on a couple of bootleg plays, and utilizing a short-hitting passing game for the most part. In other words, Petrino kept Missouri off balance just enough.

Defensively, the Illini bent but did not break, with Martez Wilson stripping the ball from Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert late in the first quarter for a big turnover.

While Scheelhaase would fumble the ball and throw a very bad interception on Illinois’ next two possessions, the defense held Missouri to a field goal just when it looked like the Tigers were going to take control and put the Illini behind.

With 7 minutes left in the second quarter, Scheelhaase got back on track, directing a near 5-minute drive that resulted in a 13-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver A.J. Jenkins.

After Illinois stopped the Tigers again, Scheelhaase used his legs late in the half to set up a 53-yard field goal by Derek Dimke at the halftime gun.

Leading 13-3 and receiving the ball out of the break, the surprising Illini certainly had the momentum after playing a better half than Missouri, which hurt itself more than Illinois did.

In the first half, Illinois played confident and controlled. The Illini ran simple routes and played smart enough to take a double-digit lead.

As for the Tigers, open Missouri receivers dropped several catchable balls that could have gone for big yardage, not that the Illini nation was complaining.

While there is no question that Illinois came out wanting the win more than the Tigers, the second half shows that once Missouri had a look at the Illini’s new schemes, it had no trouble picking apart the defense almost at will.

No one knows for sure what happened in the locker rooms that caused the change at the half, but it appeared that Illinois got over-excited at the prospect of winning a game in which they were 12 point underdogs and lost some focus and aggression, while Missouri went off on its players and made adjustments.

In simple terms, Missouri dominated the second half, and had it not been for the Illini defense doing just enough at times, the final outcome could have been much worse.

Missouri’s defensive line controlled the Illini line from the get go of the second half, as evidenced by Illinois struggling to get the running game back on track, going three and out on its first two possessions, and gaining just one first down in the third quarter.

The Tigers used stud sophomore defensive lineman Aldon Smith as a spy on Scheelhaase, and the Missouri star made things tough for the green redshirt freshman.

Additionally, the Illini were a little too close to the vest with its play calling early in the second half, playing not to lose rather than to win.

Once Missouri got the ball, it moved down the field quickly, scoring a touchdown within 5 minutes of the start of the second half.

Shockingly, despite the fact that Illinois had only one first down in the third quarter, the defense was able to preserve the lead until early in the fourth quarter, when Gabbert threw his second touchdown pass of the game.

On several other possessions, it looked like Missouri was going to break away from its 17-13 lead and blow the game out late. Despite having no momentum, the Illinois defense kept the Illini alive, with the offense taking the field with 3 minutes left and an actual chance to tie the game when facing a 20-13 deficit.

Unfortunately, Scheelhaase and the Illini would be unable to do anything (with the exception of a desperation Leshoure catch that was ruled out of bounds on fourth down), and Missouri would kick a field goal in the final minute to confirm what seemed inevitable right from the early moments of the second half: that the Tigers were going to win the game.

With all that said, Illinois has to put the loss in the rearview mirror and focus on Southern Illinois, its next opponent.

While the Illini should beat the Salukis, SIU did hang 70 points on its opening week opponent Quincy, something that Illinois does not want to hear about as it is still nursing an injured secondary back to health.

Here’s a little more on the Missouri game.

Game Balls

Missouri won this game for two reasons: the mobility and accuracy of Gabbert, who was sacked just once on 48 passing attempts (despite the Illini getting decent pressure at times with just a 3-man front) and picked apart the secondary with 5-receiver looks en route to 34 completed passes and 281 yards passing, and the play of its defensive front seven in the second half, specifically Smith, who seemed like he was everywhere at times.

Despite the loss, Illinois got some encouraging efforts from several players, most notably the following.

Nick Houska’s Illini Game Ball

● Running back Mikel Leshoure

Leshoure showed why he is a preseason candidate for the Doak Walker Award for the nation’s top running back.

In a game that saw a total of 23 pass attempts by the Illini, as opposed to the 48 attempts by the Tigers, Leshoure was able to shine despite the constant attention of the Missouri defense.

With the Tigers almost always looking for the run, Leshoure was still able to rack up 112 yards on 20 carries, including runs of 42 and 26 yards.

To help put that in perspective, the entire Missouri team only managed 98 yards on 29 attempts, which is an impressive feat for the Illini defense even if the Tigers are a pass-first team.

Chris Maynard’s Illini Game Ball

● Linebacker Ian Thomas

With 13 tackles (including 2 tackles for a loss), Thomas was Illinois’ best defensive player and arguably the best Illini player on both sides of the ball Saturday.

Not as heralded as fellow linebacker Martez Wilson, Thomas came out hitting against Missouri and was quite often involved in stopping the running game.

The Illini defense was physical all day and much more resistant than in years past, with Thomas setting the tone.

Nick Houska’s Honorable Mention

● Kicker Derek Dimke

Dimke continued his perfect streak on Saturday, nailing two field goals including a career long 52-yard kick going into the half that put the Illini up by 10.

Dimke has not missed a field goal or PAT in his collegiate career, and his dependability will be imperative down the road as the Illinois passing game continues to struggle.

As for that 52-yard field goal, it’s the longest field goal that an Illini player has made since 1987!

Kudos should also go to Illini punter Anthony Santella, who didn’t punt in the first half but had a 46.8 average on 4 big punts in the second half. The Illini special teams, both in the return and coverage games, were solid all game long.

Other Illini Players Worth Mentioning

Nick Houska’s Picks

● Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase

Despite having four turnovers, Scheelhaase still had an impressive start for the most part, throwing a 13-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Jenkins and managing to scramble for 76-yards.

The freshman was under pressure almost every down and took several hard hits, including a big one from behind as he threw to Jenkins for the second-quarter touchdown.

A few freshman mistakes were to be expected, but Illinois’ offensive line will really have to protect the quarterback better down the road. While Scheelhaase had four bad turnovers, he did not quit and continued to play hard.

Scheelhaase is certainly raw as a passer, with a lot of his passes released a half-second slow and fired too high to the Illini receivers. It will be interesting to see how this area of Scheelhaase’s game and the Illini offense progresses in 2010 because the Illinois passing attack on Saturday was nothing more than dinking and dunking.

● Cornerback Justin Green

A round of applause for Justin Green. After being moved from running back to cornerback just six days before the game to make up for injuries to the secondary, the sophomore started the game against Missouri.

Green had 6 tackles and did a great job in the new position considering the suddenness of the move and the aerial attack of Missouri.

● Linebacker Martez Wilson

Wilson looked great at times, as evidenced by his 11 tackles, 1 sack and 1 forced fumble, but was quiet in stretches.

● Wide receiver A.J. Jenkins

Jenkins had 3 receptions for 33 yards and a touchdown, but did drop a key third-down pass that would have resulted in a first down early in the third quarter.

Chris Maynard’s Picks

Overall, I was impressed with the resiliency of the defense and thought that defensive backs Nate Bussey (who had two crushing hits in the fourth quarter) and Steve Hull (a handful of tackles after playing receiver for most of Camp Rantoul) were great.

I also thought the defensive line had some nice moments, despite only registering one sack. Clay Nurse got some defensive pressure rushing off the edge, Corey Liuget and Akeem Spence made a couple of plays, as did Michael Buchanan early and Whitney Mercilus in the third quarter. Unfortunately for the Illini, Gabbert proved too elusive all day long.

If the Illini defense is able to absorb and come back from punches like it did against Missouri (and get healthy in the secondary), Illinois may be better than expected on this side of the ball.

Catcalls

Nick Houska’s Pick

A Tough Day for the Illini Offensive Line

Quite frankly, the offensive line was not good enough in this game, with the exception of two long runs by Leshoure.

Junior offensive lineman Jeff Allen had several crucial penalties, including a false start on Illinois’ opening drive within the 10-yard line. Center Graham Pocic had a high snap to Scheelhaase later on that drive, which essentially took away the passing option on that play and left the Illini quarterback scrambling for his life. Randall Hunt also had a holding penalty that pushed the driving Illini back late in the second quarter.

In the second half, the Missouri defensive line and linebackers abused the Illini up front, with Leshoure and Scheelhaase having very little time to move around and getting blown up with the ball in their hands.

Essentially, it was man alive for whoever had the ball in the Illini backfield in the last 30 minutes.

Overall, Illinois’ offensive line needs to do a better job at protecting the quarterback and not drawing penalties.

Chris Maynard’s Pick

Second-half Coaching

First things first, Petrino and new defensive coordinator Vic Koenning were very solid in the first half and impressive in their overall game plans.

As for the second half, Illinois seemed to let Missouri do what it wanted, and didn’t punch back.

Offensively, the Illini would have been well-served to get Scheelhaase either in the gun or out of the pocket on more misdirection plays. Illinois’ first possession – a conservative up-the-gut strategy that resulted in a three and out – was disappointing.

Defensively, the Illini would have been wise to bring the occasional blitz (perhaps from Martez Wilson) at Gabbert, who was pretty much firing the ball wherever he wanted to in the final 30 minutes.

As for Ron Zook, it would have been nice to see the Illini try and regain the momentum in the second half after Missouri took it back so quickly. Perhaps a trick play in the return game would have temporarily swung the momentum in favor of the Illini.

All in all, Illinois was a little content as a coaching staff to be winning the game at halftime and didn’t come out aggressive enough in the second half.

Not saying that Illinois had to get too far away from its first half script, but a little more variety (especially offensively) was still necessary in the second half.

Downfalls

● 85 yards.

That’s how much offense the Illini generated in the second half of Saturday’s matchup.

85 yards is a disappointing quarter, let alone an entire half.

The Illini only crossed the 50-yard line once in the second half.

While the Illini did have two drives in the fourth quarter cut short by interceptions, they also had just one first down in the third quarter.

The offense cannot afford to put up such anemic numbers with a young defense that is suffering from injuries.

● Line Play

The offensive line couldn’t create holes or withhold the Missouri pressure in the second half.

The defensive line couldn’t secure Gabbert when getting some penetration.

With that said, the offensive line was much, much worse than the defensive line.

● Turnovers

Last but not least, Illinois had 4 turnovers (all from Scheelhaase) while Missouri had just 1.

Illinois is not good enough to be a minus-3 in the turnover margin.

Scheelhaase will need to cut the turnovers down, preferably to one but more realistically two.

Writing Illini Prediction Record: 1-0

Alright.

The Missouri game is officially behind the Illini.

In the next couple of days, Writing Illini will start looking at the Salukis.

Until then.

Topics: A.J. Jenkins, Aldon Smith, Arch Rivalry, Blaine Gabbert, Derek Dimke, Football, Graham Pocic, Illinois Fighting Illini Football, Illinois Football, Jeff Allen, Justin Green, Martez Wilson, Mikel Leshoure, Missouri Football, Missouri Tigers, Missouri Tigers Football, Nathan Scheelhaase, Paul Petrino, Randall Hunt, Ron Zook, Salukis Football, Southern Illinois Football, Southern Illinois Salukis, Vic Koenning

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