St. Louis Chase Daniel’s former understudy threw three touchdown passes in a stellar starting debut. Sophomore Blaine Gabbert also had a lot of success running the ball, which wasn’t the strength of the former Heisman Trophy finalist.
Gabbert was 25-for-33 for 319 yards and ran for a fourth score in Missouri’s 37-9 opening victory over Illinois on Saturday. The rebuilding Tigers won their fifth in a row in the neutral-site series.
“He was locked in,” coach Gary Pinkel said. “He can run. He can put a lot of pressure on a defense like Chase Daniel couldn’t. Don’t tell Chase I said that.”
Quarterback Juice Williams was held in check and failed to convert a crucial fourth-down play for Illinois, which just missed cracking the preseason Top 25 yet flopped despite an offense with eight returning starters. The Fighting Illini were 5-7 last year but had been a touchdown favorite against a program replacing 23 seniors, including Daniel and a pair of NFL first-round draft picks.
“I sure wouldn’t have thought we’d play like that,” Illinois coach Ron 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 it.”
Missouri won its eighth straight opener without most of the key skill players from an offense that helped produce 22 victories the past two seasons. Gabbert, shining in his hometown after appearing in three games last season, added 54 yards on nine carries with an eight-yard run in the fourth quarter for an offense that had no turnovers.
“It was fun,” Gabbert said. “We really came out in the second half and put it on them.”
The Tigers led, 16-3, at the half and pulled away with touchdowns on two of their first three possessions after the break. Danario Alexander had 10 receptions for 132 yards, including two catches for 59 yards, on the opening drive of the third quarter, and Jared Perry caught a 46-yard touchdown pass in the third for a 30-3 lead.
Williams was 18-for-28 for 179 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Last year, he passed for 451 yards and five touchdowns and set an Edward Jones Dome record with 461 yards of total offense.
“I thought we were completely ready to go out and dominate this game,” Williams said. “Something happened on the way coming up from Champaign to here. I don’t know what it was.”
Missouri linebacker Sean Weatherspoon had said on Twitter during the summer that he’d “squeeze the pulp” out of Juice. After the game, he and Williams shook hands.
“I didn’t give him a squeeze,” Weatherspoon said. “Just a nice, firm handshake.”