Illinois hopes to overcome Mizzou blues

August, 31, 2010
8/31/10
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The Illinois-Missouri series goes on hiatus after Saturday's clash in St. Louis. For the men wearing orange helmets, it seems like the break can't come soon enough.

Illinois has opened its season against the rival Tigers five times since 2002, including each of the past three years. All five games have produced the same result for the Fighting Illini: 0-1.

[+] EnlargeRon Zook
Jason Miller/US PresswireRon Zook had a few surprisingly good recruiting classes in his first years at Illinois, but they haven't equaled wins for the Illini.
Many forecast another opening loss for Ron Zook's crew Saturday at the Edward Jones Dome. Translation: there's no better time for the Illini to step up and get some revenge.

If Illinois wants to make a statement that things are turning around, the Missouri game provides the perfect platform.

"They're all important, but this one has an awful lot of importance on it," Zook told ESPN.com. "Obviously, we haven’t had a lot of success against them."

The Missouri game has been a buzzkill for Illinois in each of the past two seasons. After a run to the Rose Bowl in 2007, preseason No. 20 Illinois entered the dome to face No. 6 Missouri in one of the more anticipated matchups of the 2008 opening weekend.

Game result: Missouri 52, Illinois 42

Illinois season result: 5-7

Optimism had been restored by the time Illinois made the trip to St. Louis last year. Quarterback Juice Williams and receiver Arrelious Benn had returned, linebacker Martez Wilson seemed on the brink of a huge season and the team had gone through a very successful preseason camp. Plus, Chase Daniel and Jeremy Maclin were no longer on Missouri's roster.

Game result: Missouri 37, Illinois 9

Illinois season result: 3-9

"We were healthy, we were fresh, no one was beat up, we put a big emphasis on it," Zook recalled. "And we get over there and the second play of the game, it was like somebody threw a blanket over us."

Benn and running back Jason Ford both went down with injuries. Wilson suffered a neck injury in the first quarter but remained in the game, only to learn days later that he needed season-ending surgery.

The team never fully recovered, plummeting to a 1-6 start.

As Zook prepares his team for another tough opener against Mizzou, he doesn't stiff-arm what has taken place the past few years.

“Traditionally, Missouri’s probably played if not their best, one of their best games of the year against us," Zook said. "That's the one thing we've tried to stress to our guys. You look at Missouri in the first game of the year, you look at them in the end, and they're not the same team.

"We've got to match the way they're playing."

Illinois isn't as healthy as it was a year ago, as two projected starters in the secondary, safety Supo Sanni and cornerback Terry Hawthorne, will miss the game. Missouri will play without running back Derrick Washington, but the Tigers still have quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who torched the Illini for 319 pass yards and three touchdowns last year.

Redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase makes his first career start for the Illini, who debut a new offense under coordinator Paul Petrino.

"I'm like everyone else, I want to see him play, too," Zook said. "I'm not going to say he’s going to be perfect, but he’ll learn from his mistakes and he'll do a great job."

After last year's loss, Zook and his players lamented that something happened on the bus ride from Champaign to St. Louis. No one could pinpoint the problem, but it zapped Illinois' mojo from a strong camp.

Saturday is a chance to get the momentum back.

"We all have something to prove," defensive end Clay Nurse said. "You can dwell on what your season was like last year, but I'm not one to dwell on that.

"I'm just ready to go out here and show people we can produce and be successful."

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