If the 2009 Missouri Tigers were to listen to national media, there is no reason for them to even play Illinois this year. After all, Mizzou has so many question marks that hardly anyone outside of Columbia even expects them to compete with Juice Williams and the Illini. But inside the Mizzou Athletic Complex on Monday, the Tigers were expressing no shortage of confidence.
After gashing the Illinois defense for 130 rushing yards and two touchdowns last year, junior running back Derrick Washington thinks Missouri’s critics are in for a big surprise this time around.
“We lost a lot of talent. I can’t argue with that. A lot of these young guys are going to step up and prove a lot of people wrong.”
Members of the Tigers defense are also confident heading into Saturday, despite giving up 42 points and 532 yards of total offense to the Illini a year ago.
“I don’t see any weak links in our defense as far as confidence-wise,” senior defensive end Brian Coulter said. “Everybody’s ready to go out there.”
Washington was willing to go even further than saying the defense is confident, “Our defense is stacked,” Washington said.
But while the players may be feeling positive heading into Saturday’s game, Head Coach Gary Pinkel is mindful that the Tigers still have their work cut out for them.
“They’re a great team,” Pinkel said when talking about Illinois. “They have a much more experienced team than we have. It will be a very difficult task.”
Although Pinkel will concede that Illinois is more experienced, he is downplaying the fact that experience will be a much of a factor for his quarterback, Blaine Gabbert.
“He may have less experience, but no one cares,” Pinkel said. He reiterated that fact again when asked about that “E” word saying, “Any youth or lack of experience to me is absolutely insignificant.”
Pinkel feels Gabbert is ready, but more importantly Gabbert feels he is ready.
“The talent is there (for us) and the playmaking ability is there, Gabbert said. “It’s a big game. It’s a rivalry game. Why not start big?”
Speaking of big, one of Gabbert’s biggest receiving targets backed up what Gabbert said. When asked if he was ready for Saturday, Danario Alexander replied:
“We’re ready to play them. I’m just looking forward to playing them Saturday.”
So while the critics continue to pick against the Tigers, Missouri is embracing the role of underdog this year. Among the team’s biggest critics: ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit, who in a recent article on espn.com ranked Mizzou as the number one team on the way down in 2009. But with such low expectations, the Tigers feel they have nowhere to go but up this season.
As Sean Weatherspoon put it, “We control our own destiny. What everybody is saying now doesn’t mean anything. If we go out each and every week and put up, people will be talking about the Missouri Tigers again.”