Illini can't hold Tigers

John Supinie

Illinois poked the Tiger with a stick, and No. 6 Missouri came roaring to life. Then Illinois quarterback Juice Williams almost turned this one into an instant classic.

After Illinois defensive end Derek Walker returned an interception 34 yards for a touchdown and a 13-10 lead, Missouri scored three unanswered touchdowns for an 18-point halftime lead that grew to 25 points in the third quarter. The Tigers held on for a 52-42 victory over No. 20 Illinois in the second straight season opener between the two teams that became a high-powered shootout at the Edward Jones Dome on Saturday night.

Missouri sophomore Jeremy Maclin followed Walker's touchdown with a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, and quarterback Chase Daniel directed touchdown drives of 70 and 87 yards as Missouri showed off its firepower before a crowd of 66,441 and a national TV audience in the first half.

But Williams bounced back in the second half, throwing for three of his four touchdowns while pulling the Illini to within 45-35 early in the fourth quarter. But Missouri's Sean Weatherspoon grabbed a pass away from Illinois' Daniel Dufrene and returned it for a touchdown to put the game away.

After the school's first Rose Bowl appearance in 24 years, Illinois learned coach Ron Zook's preseason company line - we're not there yet - might be accurate, but Illinois might not be that far off.

The Arch Rivalry, football's version of the Braggin' Rights, had all the atmosphere of a sold-out bowl game. Two ranked teams. The colors and talent from two BCS programs. The battle of the bands, and fans celebrating the start of the college football season just a few steps from the Mississippi River.

Williams showed off the improved passing that was evident in preseason camp, but he couldn't keep pace with Missouri's dynamic duo. Illinois (0-1) hosts Eastern Illinois (0-1) Saturday (11 a.m., Big Ten Network) in the grand reopening of Memorial Stadium. The Panthers lost 31-12 at Central Michigan Thursday.

Missouri (1-0) defeated Illinois for the fourth time in the four meetings in this building.

Daniel passed for 200 yards and one touchdown while Missouri gained 373 total yards in the first half alone. Maclin accounted for 150 all-purpose yards before halftime and added another 46-yard punt return in the second half as Missouri's two Heisman Trophy candidates got off to a fast start. Not coincidentally, Missouri controlled both lines of scrimmage.

Illinois cut the deficit to 31-20 midway through the third quarter on a 20-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Juice Williams to receiver Chris Duvalt, but Missouri scored on the ensuing possession to silence the orange side of the field.

Maclin's 46-yard punt return gave Missouri another scoring chance at the Illinois 21 late in the third quarter, and Daniel zipped a 21-yard touchdown pass on the following play for a 45-20 lead.

The nation's fifth-ranked rushing team last season, Illinois failed to get the ground attack in gear, netting nine yards in the first half and almost entirely on the passing ability of Williams. He started slow, then connected on back-to-back passes to Arrelious Benn for 25 yards and Will Judson for a 30-yard touchdown to cut the Missouri lead to 7-6 in the first quarter.

Walker was the first Illini player to return an interception for a touchdown since 2006 and the first defensive lineman to grab an interception in six years. His leaping grab stunned Daniel, and Walker's score gave the Illini a 13-10 lead and their only lead of the night.

Missouri dominated the line of scrimmage, handling a defensive line called the team's strength by Zook. The Illini went with three or four defensive ends on the four-man front in an attempt to get pressure on Daniel, but Illinois failed to put much pressure on him.

Both Illinois and Missouri entered the season after making big moves a year ago.

The Illini played ended a run of five consecutive losing seasons and appeared in a bowl game for the first time in six years. After tying for second place in the Big Ten Conference, Illinois appeared in the Rose Bowl for the first time in 24 years. A 49-17 loss to Southern Cal there didn't do much to slow the growing excitement around Illini football heading into this season.

The Illini were picked to finish third in the Big Ten Conference, and the program seeks its first back-to-back winning seasons in 18 years.

Meanwhile, Missouri earned the No. 1 ranking last season for the first time since 1960 and the second time in school history. The Tigers won the Big 12 Conference north division title for the first time and made the program's first appearance in a New Year's Day bowl game since 1966.

Missouri was a near unanimous pick to win the Big 12 north title this fall.

After the defense forced a fumble inside the Illinois 10 yard-line and held on fourth down at the Illini 36, Williams connected on a 31-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Will Judson. Missouri blocked redshirt freshman Matt Eller's point after kick, leaving the Illini trailing 7-6 heading into the second quarter.

Daniel and the Tigers needed 10 plays to go 67 yards for a touchdown just 4:42 into the game for a 7-0 lead. Daniel completed all seven passing attempts for 50 yards and scrambled 11 yards for a first down as Missouri quickly grabbed the momentum.

NOTES: These two teams meet here on Sept. 5 in the season opener next year. ... The crowd was the largest ever for a college football game in this building.