Missouri struggled on offense most of the day. But the Tigers saved their best for late in the game with a 13-play, 79-yard game-winning drive. Smith added a 2-point conversion run from an unusual swinging gate alignment, winning a foot race to the right corner of the end zone.
Smith took the snap from the 8 on the play after a false start.
Smith was 3-for-4 for 40 yards on the winning drive. Outlaw caught two of the passes for 21 yards and Zack Abron caught a 19-yard swing pass and had a 17-yard run.
Missouri, which is 6-1 in its last seven openers, responded after Illinois took its first lead of the game on a 6-yard pass from Beutjer to Kelvin Hayden with 10:36 to go.
With 2:03 left, Illinois quarterback Jon Beutjer chipped away with a series of underneath passes and marched to the 23-yard line. But as it had most of the afternoon, Missouri’s stingy red-zone defense responded.
"We were not in a prevent defense," Pinkel said. "We rushed four every time. But what you’re going to do is you’re going to keep everything in front of you and tackle. … They probably had about 350 yards of total offense to that point. Then we knew we would let them throw underneath. That was part of the plan."
While the offense struggled against an aggressive Illinois defensive front, the Tigers had an encouraging debut from its retooled defense. Missouri allowed freshman running back Ibrahim Halsey to run for 139 yards, but MU held Illinois to a respectable 3.7 yards per rush.
On third down, Missouri’s defense was feast or famine. Illinois converted eight of 16 third-down attempts, which included four of its five longest plays of the day.
But the biggest plays by the MU defense also came on third down: Jason Simpson’s hurry on Beutjer that forced an incompletion; sacks by Henry Sweat and Brian Smith; and Nino Williams’ pass break-up on Illinois final drive.
"First of all, I have to say I can’t believe I do this for living," said Pinkel, who was drained after three hours of living on the edge.
If Pinkel was exasperated, imagine how his counterpart felt. Ron Turner saw his team dissect Missouri’s defense between the 20-yard lines, hold Brad Smith to a mere 168 yards of total offense and limit Zack Abron to 60 yards on 21 carries — and the Illini still lost 22-15.
Illinois learned how hard it is to beat a team that doesn’t beat itself and how frustrating it is to even try.
The Illini kicked field goals; the Tigers made touchdowns. The Illini lost one fumble; the Tigers lost none. The Illini were penalized seven times for 33 yards; the Tigers were penalized twice for 10. The Illini tipped one punt; the Tigers tackled the punter. The Illini were stopped on fourth-and-1; the Tigers scored on fourth-and-goal.
When asked about his team’s mistakes, Turner said: "We didn’t make an abundance of them. We made some, and they didn’t make any, so that’s the difference."
"I’m proud of our defense. They were amazing today," Smith marveled yesterday after Missouri came from behind to beat the Fighting Illini 22-15 at the Edward Jones Dome. "We just have to start stepping up and make plays for them."
What’s this? The Tigers’ golden-armed quarterback, the declared "face of Missouri football," paying homage to a defense that ranked among the nation’s worst last year?
Although it won’t draw comparisons to the stingy MU defenses of the ’60s, Missouri held its ground against a loaded Illinois offense. MU’s defense might not have won the game, but it sure didn’t lose it either.
"Our confidence level for our defense is high, just like it is for our offense," Missouri wide receiver Darius Outlaw said. "They made big plays today and really stepped up. A lot of people doubted the defense, but we’ve still got at least 12 games left, hopefully. This defense is going to make plays."
This was the moment of truth. Another three-and-out possession, and Missouri probably was cooked. It was time for Smith to prove his manhood.
"We leaned on him a little bit at the end when we were struggling," Missouri Coach Gary Pinkel said of Smith. "I don’t really want to do that, but you’ve got to do what it takes to win."
Smith led Missouri on a 13-play touchdown drive that covered 68 yards. He carried six times for 20 yards and completed 3 of 3 passes for 39, capping the possession with a 6-yard touchdown pass to Outlaw and an 8-yard sprint to the end zone on a tricky 2-point conversion.
Pinkel "told me when I was going out there that they were going to put the ball in my hands, and that’s how I like it," Smith said.
Smith got some help from tailback Zack Abron, who was smothered for most of the game, on two key plays. Abron burst off the left side for a 17-yard gain — a play that ended with the ball being stripped out of his hands but rolling harmlessly out of bounds — to get past midfield. Then on a third-and-11 play, Smith threw a screen pass to Abron, who sidestepped Illinois linebacker Matt Sinclair and rumbled 19 yards.
"That was huge," Pinkel said. "That was probably the biggest play we had in the game."