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Archive for Saturday, September 1, 2007

Tigers, Illinois facing great expectations

September 1, 2007

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The last time Missouri entered a season with such high expectations, things didn't go so well. This year, the Tigers are determined to live up to the hype.

Expectations are growing, too, for Illinois as the Illini and Tigers prepare for today's opener at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. Illinois was 2-10 last season but third year coach Ron Zook's recruiting class was considered among the best in the nation.

Missouri, coming off an 8-5 season and with most of the starters back from an offense that ranked eighth in the nation last season, has been picked by the media to win the Big 12 North for the first time ever. The Tigers aren't ranked in the preseason Top 25 but received several votes and could move into the ranking with a win or two.

The last time Missouri came in with such high regard was 2004, when they were ranked 18th in the preseason. After a 4-1 start, that team fell flat, losing five straight and finishing 5-6.

"It's good to be acknowledged, but we all understand that whatever our picks our, it doesn't mean anything unless we go out and prove it," running back Tony Temple said.

Six Tigers starters were on that 2004 team. One of them, tight end Martin Rucker, said the holdovers won't let it happen again.

Missouri coach Gary Pinkel leads his team in a sprint down the field at the beginning of the squad's first practice of the season in this file photo from Aug. 4 in Columbia, Mo. MU will open its season against Illinois today in St. Louis.

Missouri coach Gary Pinkel leads his team in a sprint down the field at the beginning of the squad's first practice of the season in this file photo from Aug. 4 in Columbia, Mo. MU will open its season against Illinois today in St. Louis.

"There are similarities, but the difference is the important thing. The difference is maturity," Rucker said. "All the guys that were on that team that are here now, we've been through that year. Nobody wants to go back there."

First, Missouri must get past Illinois. Quarterback Chase Daniel leads a Missouri offense that averaged more than 30 points per game in 2006.

Meanwhile, the Illini defense ranked fifth in the Big 10 last year. The top four tacklers return, including linebacker J Leman, a Butkus Award candidate who led Illinois with 152 tackles in 2006.

Offensively, the Illinois spread offense is similar to Missouri's.

"They spread you out a little more," Zook said. "The fact that we've been going against our own offense everyday is going to help us."

Illinois also features a rushing game that led the Big 10 last year. Though the Illini lost leading rusher Pierre Thomas, it returns running back Rashard Mendenhall and quarterback Juice Williams. Mendenhall averaged more than 8 yards per carry as a sophomore, while Williams ran for 546 yards.

Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said comparisons can be made between Williams and former Missouri quarterback Brad Smith, now a receiver for the New York Jets.

"I see a really good athlete," Pinkel said. "He can make plays with his feet, he can run; I think he's got a really strong arm. I think he's an outstanding prospect."

The Tigers struggled to stop the run last season. Every Big 12 opponent except Texas Tech rushed for at least 160 yards. Missouri has six new defensive starters.

The teams last played in the 2003 opener, also in St. Louis, when Missouri beat Illinois 22-15.

I think that there is a sense of urgency, there's not a warm-up period," Pinkel said. "When you play a team, a Big 10 school, at this caliber, on national TV, you want to play well. I think our players understand and recognize that."

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