EDITORS: Updates throughout
Illinois poked the Tiger with a stick, and No. 6 Missouri came roaring to life. Then Illinois quarterback Juice Williams turned this one into an instant classic.
After Illinois defensive end Derek Walker returned an interception 34 yards for a touchdown and a 13-10 lead in the second quarter, Missouri scored three unanswered touchdowns for an 18-point halftime lead that grew to 25 points in the third quarter. The Tigers held on for a 52-42 victory over No. 20 Illinois at the Edward Jones Dome on Saturday night despite a career night from Williams.
Setting career highs with 26 completions, 42 attempts, 458 yards passing and five touchdowns, Williams showed off the improved accuracy and scoring threat in the passing game that was evident in Camp Rantoul earlier this month.
But Illinois' inability to slow Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel and Tigers receiver-returner Jeremy Maclin left the Illini empty-handed in front of a sellout crowd of 66,441.
"The thing I told the football team, we're a better football team,'' Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "Maybe we've been telling them that too much. We're going to go back to work Monday to be the kind of team we are and will be. (Missouri) is a good football team. You don't make some of the mistakes we made. That's on me.
"It's not a sin to lose to a team like that. We've got to play the way we're capable of playing. In our last two games, we haven't done that.''
Williams final touchdown pass came on the game's final play from scrimmage, but he couldn't keep pace with Missouri's dynamic duo. Williams threw three of his first four touchdowns in the second half while rallying the Illini from a 45-20 deficit to 45-35.
Williams' passing yards were the most by an Illini quarterback since Tony Eason's 479 against Wisconsin in 1982.
"We said all along that Juice is making progress,'' Zook said. "I think everybody sees that now.''
After the school's first Rose Bowl appearance in 24 years, Illinois learned Zook's preseason company line -- "We're not there yet" -- might be accurate. The passing game was improved, but the run game that ranked fifth nationally a year ago reached halftime with negative yardage. A defensive line that talked about being dominant couldn't control the line of scrimmage.
Illinois (0-1) hosts Eastern Illinois (0-1) Saturday (11 a.m., Big Ten Network) in the grand reopening of Memorial Stadium. The Panthers lost 31-12 at Central Michigan on Thursday. Missouri (1-0) defeated Illinois for the fourth time in the four meetings in this building.
Maclin followed Walker's touchdown with a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, and quarterback Daniel directed touchdown drives of 70 and 87 yards as Missouri showed off its firepower in the first half while grabbing a 31-13 halftime lead.
Missouri had 373 total yards in the first half and finished with 533 yards. Illinois had 533 total yards, but the Illini defense was left gasping for air.
"We know it's not the end of our season,'' said Illini middle linebacker Brit Miller. If your offense scores that many points, you should win the ballgame. That's on the defense. That's on myself.''
Converted defensive back Chris Duvalt caught two passes for 46 yards and two touchdowns for Illinois. Senior Will Judson, who transferred from Florida A&M without a scholarship, caught five passes for 178 and one touchdown. But an Illinois running game that ranked fifth nationally a year ago gained just 81 yards rushing on 35 carries, thanks to a 41-yard run in the third quarter by Daniel Dufrene.
The Illini had a minus-nine yards rushing at halftime.
The Arch Rivalry, football's version of the Braggin' Rights, had all the atmosphere of a sold-out bowl game. Two ranked teams. The colors and talent from two BCS programs. The battle of the bands, and fans celebrating the start of the college football season just a few steps from the Mississippi River.
Missouri clinched the victory with a 12-yard interception return for a touchdown by linebacker Sean Weatherspoon with 3 minutes 18 seconds left.
NOTES: These two teams meet here on Sept. 5 in the season opener next year. . . The crowd was the largest ever for a college football game in this building. . .
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com
Illinois report card
Juice Williams' five touchdown passes overshadowed a running game that was nearly nonexistent except for a 41-yard gain by Daniel Dufrene in the third quarter. Williams showed some touch that was evident during much of Camp Rantoul. He might need to keep up this kind of passing, unless the offensive line and the running game improve.
OK, so Tigers QB Chase Daniel and receiver-returner Jeremy Maclin are legitimate Heisman Trophy contenders, but the Illini were talking about the defensive line being dominant. Didn't see that in the dome. Even when the Illini tried four defensive ends together on the same line, Illinois didn't get much pressure on Daniel.
Special teams D-
Maclin sliced the Illini with yards, giving the Tigers the lead for good on a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and setting up another easy score on a 46-yard punt return. Redshirt freshman kicker Matt Eller also had his first extra-point attempt blocked.
The Illini came back and made a game of it. If they want to live up to the big preseason expectations, they need to start winning them.