Following last weekend's heartbreaking overtime loss to Arizona Sate, the Missouri Tigers look to prove they're still worthy of a Top 25 ranking Saturday in their match-up against Missouri Valley Conference foe Western Illinois. The Leathernecks (a personal favorite among mascots) come to town following a confidence building 35-21 shootout win against Jacksonville University. This week's match-up is welcome to a Mizzou squad that is licking its wounds--the only Big 12 squad with a loss this season--and looking to get back in the win column.
For fans, it is the kind of game where you wonder whether or not you should watch it at all (6 p.m. CT, FSN PPV) or whether your time would be better spent keeping an eye on next week's opponent, Oklahoma, as the Sooners take on Florida State in a match-up of top five teams. After Mizzou's opening week 11-point win over Miami of Ohio, it's probably better safe than sorry on this one.
Yes, Western Illinois plays Division I-AA football, but a quick glance at their recent history is enough to know the program is no joke. Last season, they won eight games, although the best two players from that squad, quarterback Matt Barr and linebacker Kyle Glazier, have since graduated and departed from the team. If Missouri's defensive stinginess from week one would could combine with the offensive explosiveness glimpsed in last weeks loss to ASU, the Tigers should cruise against Western Illinois. Here's how the two teams stack up:
Missouri Offense vs. Western Illinois Defense
Missouri sophomore quarterback James Franklin has shown that he is still a work-in-progress. That is not to say he hasn't been good, but during head coach Gary Pinkel's 10 years at Mizzou, the bar for quarterbacks has been set at much higher than "good." In Franklin's first two career starts, he gave the Tigers a chance to win both games and has only turned the ball over once. Had kicker Grant Ressel hit his long field goal attempt at the end of regulation against ASU, Franklin would have engineered an impressive 14-point comeback win, which might have been good enough to win the hearts of the Missouri faithful, at least in the short term.
Perhaps it's not surprising in Missouri's spread offense Franklin is (by far) the team's leading rusher, and that he is spreading the ball around to multiple receivers, who do not average an overwhelming number of yards per catch. Nevertheless, the Tiger offense put up more than 500 yards of offense last week against ASU. Tomorrow's outing would be a successful outing for Franklin and Missouri if he does not have to carry the ball as much as usual, and if the Tigers still win big. Henry Josey will get the start for Missouri at running back, after starter De’Vion Moore injured his ankle last week.
What do we know about the Western Illinois defense? Not a whole lot. They are giving up 20.5 points a game, but both teams they've played have been Division 1-AA foes. The Leathernecks' secondary has picked off three passes this season, but Franklin has given Mizzou fans no reason to believe he will be much of a turnover problem.
Missouri Defense vs. Western Illinois Offense
It is a bit of a concern that Missouri's defense gave up almost 500 yards last week, but I think most of that concern can be shelved until next week. Western Illinois quarterback Josh Hudson is accurate (completes 65.6% of his passes) and effective (4 touchdown passes, 1 interception). This could give Missouri's secondary--which struggled last week--a little more than it wants to handle. The Leathernecks also possess a nice running back named Caulten Ray--a Michigan State transfer--who is averaging 5.2 yards per carry. He seems to share the load with several others. The strength of schedule between the two teams should make the difference here. Look for the Mizzou linebacking crew of Andrew Wilson, Luke Lambert, and Zavier Gooden to have a big game up front.
Any time a Division 1-AA team travels to a BCS school, the advantage is going to swing heavily toward the BCS school. (Although, try telling any of this to the 2007 Michigan football team that lost to Appalachian State.) Tomorrow should be the rule rather than the exception for the Tigers. If the game is closer than it should be, I imagine that last week's overtime contest could benefit the Tigers in the form of focus and execution. It should not be ignored, however, that Missouri wasn't sharp two weeks ago in hosting Miami of Ohio, that Western Illinois has nothing to lose, and that the Leathernecks only lost by ten last season at Purdue.
Prediction: Missouri 45, Western Illinois 10