After so many years of being controlled by opponents and its own demerits, Missouri seized the controller's role yesterday at Faurot Field.
The result was a 31-3 victory over Big Ten neighbor Illinois, in which the Tigers' offense and defense coexisted peacefully before an announced crowd of 48,427.
The victory left Missouri on an emotional swell, left Illinois somewhat shellshocked and left MU coach Bob Stull soggy after players emptied a Gatorade jug on his head in the final seconds. "The one thing about it since I've been here you had very few games where you had it under control," Stull said. "In the fourth quarter, you can relax a little and enjoy it and put some other players in the game. We certainly had that today.
"I felt like it was one of our better victories, if not the best."
The victory was Missouri's third in a row, including two to close 1992, and maintained the longest current winning streak in the Big Eight. It has been 10 years since Missouri won as many games consecutively.
The streak survived thanks to a defense that held Illinois to 255 total yards, created three turnovers and stuffed the Illini on several key plays early.
Tigers cross to the other side
What came across was conviction that yesterday's victory had been in the making since November, when Missouri abruptly ended another dreary season of descent by pulling its nose up in the last two games.
They beat Kansas, a bowl team, to end the season. They beat Illinois, a bowl team the last five years, to start this one.
Illinois had a good reputation defensively and was an unknown quantity on offense.
The Tigers seemed to have studied the Illini, who've achieved the baffling feat of going to bowls after losing to Northwestern each of the last two years, and not only found a way to win but do it handily.
"That game plan was the perect game plan for the system," tight end A.J. Ofodile said.
The outcome was savored. In a big way.
"If we won in a close game, I think everybody would say that it was because we were at home and we were motivated and it's just a fluke or whatever," Ofodile said. "I think we had to win like this to convince everybody we were for real."
As euphoric MU students sawed a goal post into foot-long pieces, a throng of beer-quaffing fans yesterday clogged Cherry Street near Harpo's bar and celebrated the Tiger's 31-3 trouncing of the University-of Illinois in its home opener.
Steadying the steel tube while his friends hacked it up with a handsaw on the sidewalk off Eighth Street, MU student Eric Gibbs said the victory marks a turnaround in the Tigers' football program. "We're coming out of the dark," 'he said. "The bats are flying out."
MU student Joe Hart, 21, who said he straddled the goal post's crossbar when it was torn down, agreed. "They're going to have a good season," he gushed.
The crowd downtown hugged the four corners of the intersection at Tenth and Cherry streets, and police struggled to keep the human mass from spilling too far into the streets. About 800 people joined the celebration, police estimated.
MU alum Rich Bigelow, 36, also thought Missouri might bounce back from last year's lackluster 3-8, record. "We've been sucking for the past 10 years," he said standing by the goal post. "Finally we have a defense that can stop them."
Missouri quarterback Jeff Handy assessed his performance in Saturday's 31-3 victory over Illinois as "all right."
Adequate – being defined as completing 20 of 30 passes for 281 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions - today landed Handy the Big Eight Offensive Player of the Week honors.
In the absence of strong open-field running, the passing game excelled. Jeff Handy completed 20 of 30 passes for 281 yards and two touchdowns. And when MU needed a critical yard or two on third down, the full-house backfield came through.
"Basically that full-house backfield is unstoppable," said fullback Michael Washington, who scored twice with fullbacks Bryan Murray and Antwan Johnson blocking. "For us to be an effective team, we need to run."
Faurot’s split-T spawned the modem-day option attacks. Missouri stayed with straight handoffs.
"We needed to do something different on short yardage," Stull said. "Fresno State uses that unbalanced T-formation and had a lot of success with it. Between Fresno and talking to Coach Faurot, we adopted the three-back look."
Illinois defense droops, drags
Tepper said he began noticing the dropoff in intensity midway through the second half. The Fighting Illini trailed 17-3 to start the third quarter. With 8:34 left, Handy found wide receiver Kenny Holly for a 15-yard touchdown pass that put Missouri up 24-3.
"They just picked us apart in our secondary and with our linebackers," 'said Illinois inside linebacker John Holecek. "Our linebackers were in chaos a lot, and Handy's got to be given a lot of credit He found every weakness and exploited it."
To the defense's credit, Handy's passes were most often thrown only where his receivers could catch them.
Still, linebacker Dana Howard was disheartened.
"Coach Tepper knows how a winning defense should play, and a lot of that is attitude," Howard said. "I guess we just didn't play like a winning team today. I'm not really sure why it happend. I just know that we didn't do what we were supposed to do. It was just a big letdown."