In September 2000, Missouri welcomed Western Illinois to town for the teams’ first and only meeting. Mizzou was desperate for an offensive upgrade. The grind-it-out, I-formation attack of the Corby Jones era had fallen apart once Jones (and Devin West) left, and Mizzou had gone an incredibly disappointing 4-7 in 1999. Suddenly embattled Mizzou head coachbrought in early spread guru Bill Cubit to spice up the offense, and for at least one day, it seemed to work. Mizzou won, 50-20, and started the season in style. Only once in the next ten games would they score more than 24 points.
When Western Illinois comes back to Columbia this fall, the circumstances will obviously be quite different. Both the Tigers’ and Leathernecks’ fortunes have changed in the last 11 years. WIU shocked the FCS by improving from 1-10 in 2009 to 8-5 in 2010, upsetting Coastal Carolina and advancing to the second round of the FCS playoffs. Quarterback Matt Barr was the runner-up for the Walter Payton Award (the FCS’ Heisman Trophy), linebacker Kyle Glazier was the runner-up for the Buck Buchanan Award (the FCS’ defensive player of the year), and head coach Mark Hendrickson was the runner-up for the Eddie Robinson Award (the FCS’ coach of the year). It was a stunning turnaround for a program that had seen a downturn in fortunes in recent years. Once a mainstay in the FCS playoffs, WIU had not seen the postseason since 2003. The school that produced the likes of safety Rodney Harrison had been struggling to make an impact on the world of college football.
Hendrickson’s second full season as head coach could be quite a bit more trying than the first. Both Barr and Glazier are gone, as are ten other starters. The 2010 squad was able to make a run, in part, because of their experience. If they are to do so again in 2011, it will be because of their depth.
The Western Illinois offense exploded in 2010, averaging 457 yards per game and offering some solid balance. Two Leatherneck receivers (Lito Senatus and Terriun Crump) posted over 850 receiving yards, while two running backs (Caulton Ray and Bryce Flowers) rushed for over 800 yards. WIU tried as hard as they could to establish the run, then told quarterback Matt Barr to make a play when they needed one; the formula worked.
Unfortunately for the Leathernecks, advancing the ball should get a lot more difficult. Not only is Barr gone, but so is star receiver Lito Senatus (65 receptions, 1,145 yards, 14 touchdowns). Offensive coordinator will likely try to lean on the running game even more in 2011, but Ray and Flowers, just a junior and sophomore, respectively, will possibly find the going a bit tougher with the departure of three starting offensive linemen and a good blocking tight end in Drew Helt.
While Western Illinois was successful in 2010, winning four games by at least 20 points, they did not give backup quarterback (and likely 2011 starter) Will Lunt many opportunities to play his trade; he attempted just two passes and two rushes all season. He is athletically similar to Barr, who rushed for almost 500 yards in addition to his 3,400 yards passing, but whether he can minimize a potential dropoff is highly unclear. Barr was so incredibly successful that it is difficult to imagine Lunt pulling off an entirely seamless transition.
Though Senatus and Helt are indeed gone, everybody else in the receiving corps returns. Terriun Crump (888 yards, 15.9 per catch, five touchdowns) was a nice, athletic big-play threat, and Justin Morgan and Charles Chestnut should give Lunt nice backup options as well. Western Illinois is not shy about dumping off to running backs and giving them space to run; Flowers was WIU’s third-leading receiver, catching 19 passes for 332 yards, including an 87-yarder in the regular season finale against Northern Iowa. Senatus and Crump may have combined for over half of the Leathernecks’ receptions, but Barr spread the ball around well enough to give exposure to quite a few different targets.
When an FBS team plays an FCS opponent, the single biggest difference comes in the sheer athleticism of the two opponents; FCS teams just cannot compete in that regard. But while the Western Illinois line should struggle mightily with Mizzou’s front four, the Leathernecks do have a player who prove a nice adversary for the tigers: Crump. At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, he brings a nice combination of speed and physical presence. Mizzou’s Kip Edwards has obviously fought battles with bigger, stronger receivers (Texas A&M’s Jeff Fuller, to name one), but he and E.J. Gaines will not be able to coast against Crump. If Lunt proves adept at both running and finding open receivers, and Crump is able to do a little bit of damage, then WIU could move the ball a bit. If they are relying on their ability to establish the run, however, they will struggle.
While the WIU offense took a huge step forward in 2010, the defense maintained what have been quite a few years of strong play. Running an odd formation most resembling a 3-4, the Leathernecks incorporate quite a bit of speed into their attack, but their biggest problem in 2011 will be the same as the offense’s: experience. Arguably the two best linemen, two best linebackers and best defensive back from last year’s squad are all gone.
The run defense was a relative strength for last year’s squad, but the departures among the front seven will hurt. All-American Kyle Glazier departs, as does fellow linebacker Brandon Kreczmer. The Leathernecks are stocked at the Rover position (a hybrid of a safety and an outside linebacker that WIU uses to attack from all angles), where Kevin Palermo, Tim Franken and Ryan Waldron all racked up tackles for loss and passes defensed. But without Glazier and Kreczmer, WIU will be looking for leadership from new starters like Sam Power and Mike Garoppolo.
If the concern for the WIU offense is getting pushed around in the trenches, there is an identical fear for the defense. Tackle is such a key position for the three-man front -- you have to be able to take on multiple blockers and free up the linebackers to make plays -- and Victor Visoky was a rather good one for the Leathernecks. He’s gone, however, leaving the job to likely new starter Alex Martinez, a bigger (300 pounds) senior who averaged about a tackle per game.
The Western secondary was a bit problematic last year, grabbing less than one interception per game and allowing almost seven yards per attempt. The top two cornerbacks -- Kieron James and Chris Boone -- return, but the health of the secondary could come down to whether safety Tyler West can get his grades together. He was removed from the roster this summer, and it is unclear whether he will return this fall.
SERIES SPOTLIGHT: September 2, 2000 (Mizzou 50, Western Illinois 20)
Mizzou's first experiment with the spread offense is a relative success. The Tigers post just 303 total yards, but they don't have to do much more. The Tigers are forced to advance just 54 yards in scoring three touchdowns on their first four drives, then stall in the second quarter. WIU cuts a 21-6 Mizzou lead to just 23-13, but two Zain Gilmore touchdown runs and a pick six from Julian Jones give Mizzou the cushion they need. Points will be a rarity for the Tigers in 2000; after scoring 50 against WIU, they score a combined 43 in the next three games.