Mizzou vs. Illinois
Opening Day of baseball season makes you feel warm and happy, no matter how cold the temperature is. Hearing the umpire bellow, “Play Ball!” means that summer isn’t far away.
Opening Day in college football makes you want to throw up.
That’s because college football has no pre-season games. Teams scrimmage against themselves and then take the field in games that count. The nausea factor increases because teams turn over a big chunk of personnel every year due to graduation (not an issue at the University of Oklahoma).
This year, head coach Gary Pinkel will play more freshmen than ever before. That can be a good thing, to borrow a phrase from college pigskin and correctional facility expert Martha Stewart. In 2002, freshman quarterback Brad Smith ran for 138 yards in the opener, on his way to rewriting the Missouri record book. In 2007, Jeremy Maclin returned a punt for a touchdown, on his way to setting an NCAA record for total freshman yardage. But generally speaking, freshmen are on their way to getting lost on campus and trying to purchase beer with a Best Buy card.
To add some churn to the acid reflux, the 6th-ranked Tigers were taking on the 20th-ranked University of Illinois in the only opening weekend game between ranked teams. The Illini went to the Rose Bowl last year, and despite the fact that they foolishly rode around on floats waving rather than playing in the actual game, they entered 2008 with a tough defensive line and a seasoned quarterback in Isiah “Juice” Williams.
The game was scheduled for a 7:30 p.m. national airing on ESPN. I drove from Chicago to St. Louis that morning, trying to become comfortable with the fact that one of the offensive linemen responsible for keeping our quarterback from getting killed was a freshman named Elvis. On route, I called my friend “News” Hughes, who immediately launched into play-by-play announcer mode: “Chase Daniel is down! He’s holding his right knee! He got blindsided and this, Tiger fans, looks bad. Very bad.”
I thanked him for the vote of confidence and hung up.
Anxious to get to the Gateway City, I flipped Sirius radio stations between classic rock, 90’s alternative, garage and, finally, 60’s pop hits. “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy” by Ohio Express feels almost like Zeppelin when you’re on I-55 doing 110 mph on Labor Day weekend.
To be honest, the contest is somewhat of a cooked-up rivalry, as evidenced by its promotional name--the "Arch Rivalry." True rivalries are not described by puns. Missouri and Illinois border each other, but the schools are in different conferences, and this game, for all that's at stake, doesn’t measure up to the nasty blood feuds like Ohio State-Michigan. Missouri borders seven states.* We can’t be mad at all of them.
*Missouri shares the state-bordering record with Tennessee. You’re welcome.
Despite its history, Illinois football lacks a certain je ne sais quoi (literally, “reason to watch”). They’ve spent lots of time bringing up the bottom half of the Big Ten, so Missouri fans should feel some empathy, and yet we don’t. Why is this? Perhaps it’s the university’s bold helmet choice, with “ILLINOIS” spelled out in an easy-to-read, conservative font. Maybe it’s their ex-mascot, Chief Illiniwek—a white guy in war paint and full head dress who the NCAA labeled as “hostile or abusive” when they banned him in 2007. They could have shut him down by labeling him “lame and uncompelling” instead, and few non-Illinois fans would disagree.
Plus, what’s an Illini? Kind of like a Phillie? As best as anyone can tell, the team was named after…wait for it…their student newspaper. Apparently, in the late 19th century, other football teams quivered at their scathing editorials. Post-Chief, I suppose you have to give the administration points for not stuffing a student into a big, fuzzy “I” with a press pass dangling from it and asking him to run around at games like a jackass. Still, a college football program with no mascot. Come on.
In fairness, the full moniker is “Fighting Illini.” Adding “Fighting” to a college team’s name always struck me as redundant. Isn’t it a given that all football teams are out there to fight for old State U? "Fighting" sounds generic, not badass. (The Fighting Irish earn a pass on this, since their logo features a leprechaun putting up his tiny magical dukes, and historically, the Irish have excelled in bar brawls.) If pre-nickname adjectives actually matched the team’s behavior, they’d be more far more interesting:
Changing the name to “Fartin' Illini” would at least strike some fear in the opposition.
The Thuggin’ Hurricanes (University of Miami)
The Not Goin’ to Class Oftenin’ Sooners (University of Oklahoma)
The Not Winnin’ Muchin’ but it beats Goin’ to Iraqin’ Black Knights (Army)
After crossing the Mississippi into St. Louis, I spent the afternoon hanging with mom on the Hill, the Italian neighborhood where she grew up. It’s only around eight square blocks or so, but peppered throughout with restaurants, delis and bakeries. Joe Garagiola and Yogi Berra grew up there, on the same street my dad did. Mom and I strapped on the feed bag at Zia’s (Italian for aunt) and as I sat there I couldn’t help but feel a little sad about the fact that, with her parents gone, she doesn’t really have much reason to come down there anymore. Not so sad that I didn’t ask her to go in the restaurant kitchen and whip me up something, though.
One pre-game nap, shower, and donning of a gold t-shirt later, I made my way to Dubliners, a bar in the shadow of the stadium. My first close college friend, Tim “Buddy” May, greeted me, resplendent in the Mizzou version of a Magnum P.I. Hawaiian shirt. “I’m wearing my lucky overshirt,” he beamed, and upon seeing another fan wearing something similar, added, “this one's vintage.”
The atmosphere in the bar consisted of excited Tiger and Illini fans setting a base with Anheuser-Busch (ok, Anheuser-Busch/InBev) products and avoiding eye contact with each other. Illini fans sensed that the odds were against them, and the Mizzou faithful didn’t feel confident enough of victory to remind them. On the plasmas, the Michigan Wolverines were dropping their home opener to Utah, which both sides seemed to enjoy.
We headed to the Edward Jones Dome, home of the St. Louis Rams. Domed stadiums fit college football like O.J. Simpson fits polite society. The Edward Jones Dome is no different, cavernous and capable of sucking the sound out of the crowd. Spanning the perimeter of the stadium is a “ring of fame,” featuring the names of both St. Louis football Cardinal greats like Larry Wilson and Roger Werhli, and Los Angeles Rams legends Merlin Olsen, Deacon Jones, and Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch. The effect, apparently, is to provide fans with a constant reminder that they had a team stolen out from under them and they had to swipe another city’s team to come out even.
Our seats were located directly over the Missouri locker room tunnel, which consisted of a branded “Arch Rivalry” plastic tarp stretched over the end zone corner exit. The position of our seats allowed us to see underneath the tarp as the team prepared to take the field, and possibly hand a beer to one of them, if necessary. The Tigers jumped up and down in the make-shift mosh, and then, almost eight months to the day of their Cotton Bowl victory over Arkansas, charged out to begin the 2008 campaign.
Our new starting tailback, Derrick Washington, scored the first points of the game, running as though he were in a hurry to make people forget graduated senior Tony Temple. But the Illini came back with a perfect fade pattern and an interception return, and led with a little more than 9 minutes left in the half, 13-10.
The knock on Illinois coach Ron Zook has always been that he’s a world-class recruiter but a mediocre coach. As if to confirm that, he instructed his kickoff team to boot it to Maclin. The Kirkwood High School speedster gathered the ball at the 1-yard line, and 99 yards later, the Illini’s only lead of the night vanished after all of 13 seconds.
The Tigers poured it on after that, leading 31-13 at the half and stretching that to 45-20 late in the 3rd quarter. Mizzou was toying with one of the top teams in the Big Ten. The opening weekend of the college football season was ours--until we looked over and saw Mizzou trainers on the field, working on Jeremy Maclin. We didn't see the hit--turns out there was none--but a few minutes later our tunnel seats offered the best view in the house of the worst thing imaginable. Maclin was carted off the field, a towel to his face, his legs stretched out in front of him and a trainer stabalizing his ankle.
The Tiger offense stalled and the Illini came back, as Juice Williams began picking apart the Tiger secondary. When the final gun sounded, he’d connected on 5 touchdown passes. It took a late interception return by Mizzou linebacker Sean Weatherspoon to ice the game. Final score, 52-42, with Illinois scoring their last touchdown as time ran out. The best news: Maclin returned to the sidelines on crutches, an ice pack on his bum ankle. An MRI the next day would reveal no damage--just a slight sprain.
We staggered, exhausted, into the street at 11:30 p.m., had one more beer (which tasted like…victory), and then crawled off to our respective gutters. The Tigers had played in one of the tougher contests of the weekend—and maybe their season—and lived to tell about it. We learned what Mizzou was good at (scoring quickly), what they were not (milking the clock with a lead) and what really needed shoring up (pass coverage).
Driving I-55 back to Chicago the next day, I stopped at an off-ramp Steak ’n Shake, grabbing a local paper for an account of the game. “How’s the steakburger?” the waitress asked, employing the franchises’ term for their chopped cow sandwich. I smiled and gave the mouth-full thumbs up, thinking about one of the chain’s old taglines, “Steak 'n Shake. It’s a meal.”
The Illinois game was a meal. Maybe a meal and a half.