ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Blaine Gabbert threw for 319 yards and three touchdowns and ran for a fourth in a stellar starting debut to lead rebuilding Missouri to a 37-9 victory over Illinois on Saturday, its fifth win in a row in the neutral-site series.
Juice Williams was held in check and failed to convert a crucial fourth-down play for Illinois, which just missed cracking the preseason Top 25 but flopped despite an offense with eight returning starters. The Fighting Illini were 5-7 last year but had been a touchdown favorite against a program replacing 23 seniors, including quarterback Chase Daniel and a pair of NFL first-round draft picks.
Missouri won its eighth straight opener without most of the key skill players from an offense that helped produce 22 victories the past two seasons. Gabbert, a sophomore shining in his hometown after appearing in three games last season as Daniel's understudy, was 25-for-33 and added 39 yards on 10 carries for an offense that had no turnovers.
Gabbert had three first-down runs before bulling into the end zone on an 8-yard carry in the fourth quarter.
The Tigers led 16-3 at the half and pulled away with touchdowns on two of their first three possessions after the break. Danario Alexander had 10 receptions for 132 yards, including two catches for 59 yards, on the opening drive of the third quarter, and Jared Perry caught a 46-yard touchdown pass in the third for a 30-3 lead.
Williams was 18 for 28 for 179 yards with an interception and was sacked three times. Last year, Williams passed for 451 yards and five touchdowns and set an Edward Jones Dome record with 461 yards of total offense.
Illinois wide receiver Arrelious Benn and running back Jason Ford missed the second half with ankle injuries. Daniel Dufrene, the starter at running back, dressed but did not play due to an ankle injury.
Gabbert was 7 for 8 for 106 yards in the first quarter, leading Missouri to a 10-0 lead after two possessions while Illinois opened with two punts. The big play of the half was a 49-yard scoring pass to Wes Kemp, a sophomore also making his first career start, and the Tigers added field goals of 32, 44 and 41 yards from new kicker Grant Ressel.
Trailing 13-3 late in the second quarter, Illinois failed to capitalize on a roughing the punter call when Williams stumbled just after taking the snap on 4th-and-1 at the Missouri 20. Williams appeared to get his legs tangled with guard Randall Hunt and fell backward for a 4-yard loss.
Missouri has won 11 straight non-conference games, the longest streak in school history, since a home loss to New Mexico in 2005.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)