Redshirt freshman quarterback Brad Smith ran for 138 yards and passed for 152 in his debut, leading Missouri to a 33-20 upset of Illinois on Saturday.
Zack Abron shrugged off two lost fumbles and ran for 116 yards and two touchdowns, and the Tigers' defense stuffed the defending Big Ten champions, who went 10-2 last year.
Illinois averaged a school-record 32 points last year but struggled under new quarterback Dustin Ward, the backup to Kurt Kittner the previous two seasons who was making his second career start.
Smith, who became the first freshman in school history to start an opener, beat out senior Kirk Farmer for the No. 1 job in the spring and was difficult to contain all day. He sealed the victory with a 24-yard fourth-quarter touchdown run that gave Missouri a 33-14 lead. He also had a 39-yard run in the third. Throwing the ball, Smith was 15-for-26.
Back at Harpo’s, Zac Nichols, a physical education major at the University of Missouri-Columbia, had a hard time staying in his chair. Wearing a black-and-gold Missouri football shirt with a tiger-paw sticker and toting a cell phone with a tiger faceplate, Nichols was elated with the Tigers’ apparent victory when they led 26-14 late in the fourth quarter.
"There’s no stopping us now. Brad Smith, he’s the man," said Nichols, a Tiger fan since his boyhood. "I’ve been waiting for this game all year. I counted down all the days."
Nichols used his phone to transmit the excitement of the bar to a friend at Truman State University in Kirksville.
"The Tigers are awesome," he shouted into the phone.
[I]t didn’t take long to figure out that it was Smith who was going to be teaching the lessons. His running ability gave Missouri what it hasn’t had since Corby Jones - a quarterback that paralyzes defenses and frightens defensive coordinators.
That’s half of it. He also showed more poise than even Pinkel expected. Smith consistently made the right decisions. He showed patience in the pocket, scrambled when needed and threw the ball away at the right times.
Surely, there will be frustrating days ahead for Smith. He is a redshirt freshman, after all. But there’s hope for this season, and I didn’t believe there was after watching Missouri’s woeful offensive effort in its final preseason scrimmage. You have to rethink Missouri’s potential now.
"Saying I’m proud of my football team is an understatement," Pinkel said. "When you’re building a program, so much is attitude and so much is handling adversity and being able to fight through it. Certainly we’re not there. This isn’t the answer to our program, but it’s certainly a great testament to my football team.
On Friday night, Bruce Springsteen rocked St. Louis for nearly three hours at the Savvis Center. Yesterday, just a few blocks east, it was Smith’s turn to do the same - not to the tune of "Born to Run," but something similar.
Smith made history before stepping onto the turf yesterday, becoming the first freshman quarterback to start a season opener for Missouri. By game’s end, he added to his historic day by rushing for 138 yards on 18 carries - the third-most for an MU quarterback. Only Jones ever rushed for more.
"I knew he was going to have a good day," wide receiver Thomson Omboga said. "It was basically him just coming out and proving it to the world. That’s all it was."
Displaying the accuracy that won him the starting job over senior Kirk Farmer, Smith also completed 15 of 26 passes for 152 yards and no interceptions.
Afterward, Pinkel was unusually candid discussing his quarterback, who few programs had recruited out of Youngstown, Ohio, two years ago when Pinkel’s staff was coaching at Toledo. Pinkel said that when assistant coach Matt Eberflus showed him a tape of Smith’s high school highlights, he figured they had no chance of luring him to their midmajor school.
"I can’t do a lot of things, but I think I’m a decent judge of quarterback talent," Pinkel said. "And that’s about it."