LINCOLN — Missouri dusted off a 7-year-old defense Saturday to nearly dust off fifth-ranked Nebraska.
The 34-point underdog Tigers raced into the Nebraska backfield all afternoon with a three-man blitz, forcing five fumbles out of Husker quarterback Steve Taylor and holding the nation’s No. 1 rushing offense to 8 yards through three quarters.
But Taylor heaved an 82-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter to tight end Todd Millikan for Nebraska’s first score.
He launched a 59-yarder to split end Nate Turner to set up the field goal that put the Huskers ahead after three quarters.
And after Missouri took the lead again in the fourth quarter, Taylor changed plays and read the correct option handoff, allowing fullback Bryan Carpenter to explode 49 yards for the eventual winning touchdown in Nebraska’s 26-18 victory before 76,316 fans at Memorial Stadium.
The win boosted Nebraska’s record to 8-1 overall and 4-0 in the Big Eight. Missouri fell to 2-5-1 and 1-3.
“Let me tell you, that wasn’t easy,” NU Coach Tom Osborne said. “I’m very proud of our team for winning this game.
“People will be upset with us because we didn’t make the point spread. But that was the most ridiculous point spread I’ve ever seen in my life.
“I know what Missouri has got. They have lost to some teams big. But when they play well, they have got the people to play with anybody.”
The Tigers proved it Saturday, using the same blitz they used in 1981 to confound Nebraska and its quarterback, Turner Gill, until the final 23 seconds, when fullback Phil Bates scored from the 3 for a 6-0 NU win.
“They went back to their 1981 game plan,” Osborne said. “They knocked the tar out of Turner Gill all day and blitzed from every angle.”
Carl Reese was Missouri’s defensive coordinator under Warren Powers in 1981. Reese, after coaching in the United States Football League, returned to the Tigers last year.
Osborne said the Huskers prepared heavily last year for Reese’s “Houston blitz,” but saw little of it.
“This year, we worked on it a little bit,” he said. “But they went entirely away from everything they had done defensively today. And you’ve got to work on what they show you.”
What Missouri unveiled was a blitz involving two of its three linebackers, plus the strong safety. What made it difficult to defend, Osborne said, was that two of the blitzers always came through the same gap.
The pressure produced mind-numbing statistics to Nebraska fans used to seeing 470.4 yards rushing a game and 527.5 yards overall this season:
— Nebraska made nine first downs, the fewest since getting seven in a 47-0 loss to Oklahoma in 1968.
— NU’s offensive output four plays into the third quarter was minus-22 yards.
— The 116 yards rushing — 108 of which came in the fourth quarter — was Nebraska’s second-lowest in the past 130 games. The lowest was 101 against Oklahoma in 1986. Next after that was 110 against Alabama in 1978.
— Taylor finished with minus yards rushing for the first time in his career. He had 13 carries for minus-38 yards.
“They were coming with a full blitz 60 to 70 percent of the time today,” Osborne said. “It’s a Russian roulette type of deal. You’re going to get big plays or nothing. And in the first half, they won.”
Missouri led 6-0 at halftime on freshman Jeff Jacke’s field goals of 25 and 32 yards. Jacke, 2 of 3 in field-goal attempts this season entering the game, added a 19-yarder with 11:04 left in the third quarter for a 9-0 lead.
But Nebraska, after getting next to nothing for 2 1/2 quarters, finally got a big one.
Taylor scrambled away from a blitz to hit Millikan with an 82-yard TD pass to cut the gap to 9-7 with 10:04 left in the quarter and give NU positive total yardage.
The Huskers appeared to take the lead on the ensuing kickoff as Missouri’s Chris Hall fumbled, NU cornerback Charles Fryar picked it out of the air and raced 25 yards to the end zone.
But Husker linebacker LeRoy Etienne, at least 40 yards away from the play on the other side of the field, was called for a personal foul, negating the return. Etienne was scrapping with Missouri center Brad Walters.
“That’s got to be about the dumbest thing I have ever heard of-taking a swing at a guy on that play,” Osborne said.
“We have talked about things like that costing you championships. It could have today.”
Nebraska got the ball at the Missouri 43, but had to punt after Taylor fumbled and lost 10 yards on a blitz.
On the first play after the punt, Missouri’s Michael Jones fumbled and Fryar recovered at the 25.
This time, Nebraska took advantage.
Taylor scrambled for 24 yards to give the Huskers zero net rushing yards with 6:36 left in the third quarter. That set up Tyreese Knox’s 1-yard TD run for a 14-9 lead, NU’s first of the day.
But Missouri came right back after an exchange of fumbles.
The Tigers drove nearly 60 yards to the NU 9 before quarterback Corey Welch appeared to fumble at the 3 after a hit by NU free safety Tim Jackson.
Osborne heaved his head set to the turf when the officials gave the ball back to Missouri. On fourth and one at the 3, Jones swept in for a 15-14 lead, which stayed that way when the two-point conversion try failed.
Referring to Welch’s apparent fumble, Osborne said: “It appeared the ball came out before he hit the ground. But maybe I didn’t see it right.’’
Taylor beat the blitz on the next possession with a 59-yard bomb to Turner, setting up Chris Drennan’s 29-yard field goal for a 17-15 Husker lead with 1:37 left in the third.
But Jacke’s 51-yard field goal with 10:43 left in the fourth quarter put Missouri back up 18-17.
Osborne said he was scared.
“But I don’t think anybody panicked,” he said. “We didn’t freeze up.”
On the next drive, Nebraska finally got its ground game going.
Osborne said the use of true triple-option plays out of the spread formation helped identify where Missouri would blitz from. And NU used the first option — handing to fullback Carpenter — to win the game.
Carpenter broke a 49-yard TD run to put NU up 23-18 with 8:24 left in the game. The try for two points failed.
Then on the next drive, shortened when outside linebacker Mike Croel deflected Missouri’s punt, Carpenter broke runs of 21 and 8 yards to set up Drennan’s clinching field goal — a 23-yarder — with 2:15 to play.
Croel stopped Missouri’s last gasp with an interception in the final minute.
“My hat is off to Missouri, and my hat is off to Nebraska’s players,” Osborne said. “I hope the fans understand what they saw. They saw a good game and a heck of a lot of tough football played.”
NU center Jake Young said the Huskers weren’t flat.
“Everybody thought we came in with the big head,” he said. “We didn’t. We played a tough team. There is no way their record indicates how good they are.”
And the point spread?
“It was way off,” Young said. “It wasn’t even close to reality.”
While Missouri retained Nebraska’s respect, the Huskers lost some in at least one Tiger’s eyes.
“If they keep playing like that, they are in for a long season,” Missouri tight end Tim Bruton said. “If they have bowl hopes, they better shape up.”
Nebraska’s hopes for a major bowl might have flickered after a first-half offensive performance that is believed to be the weakest in the 26-year coaching era of Osborne and Bob Devaney.
The Huskers got a 10-yard run from Ken Clark on the game’s second play for a first down, then had to wait 22 1/2 minutes for another-and it came on a pass-interference penalty.
For the first half, Nebraska had 15 yards rushing and none passing.
Nebraska’s defense tried to help the offense.
On Missouri’s first possession, cornerback Lorenzo Hicks tipped a Welch pass into the arms of linebacker Chris Caliendo at the Tiger 40.
Clark carried twice for 6 yards and Dana Brinson once for 2 to create a fourth and two at the 32. The Huskers tried to hammer it up the middle, but Clark was stopped a yard short.
Missouri came back with two first downs as Welch ran for 10-and 13-yard gains. But the drive stalled at the Nebraska 43.
“Our defense played a great game,” Osborne said. “I was really proud of them.”
Missouri strong safety Otis Smith ended Nebraska’s next drive after three plays when he blitzed Taylor for a 6-yard loss.
Smith’s statistics Saturday showed how Missouri had changed its attack. He had no tackles for losses in Missouri’s first seven games, but made four for 24 yards against Nebraska.
After John Kroeker’s 38-yard punt, the Tigers moved 44 yards to the game’s first score.
Welch hit fullback Tommie Stowers with a 31-yard pass on the first play of the drive to the NU 21. Missouri kept punching to the Husker 3.
On third and two, Welch tried to a bootleg keeper to the left, but NU strong safety Reggie Cooper dumped him for a 5-yard loss. Jacke came on to make a 25-yard field goal to give Missouri a 3-0 lead with 1:03 left in the first quarter.
Brinson returned the ensuing kickoff 34 yards to the Missouri 43, but Nebraska went three downs and out again as another third-down blitz forced Taylor to throw incomplete.
Three punts later, Nebraska tried to start from its own 33. But Missouri’s Smith blitzed Taylor again, forced a fumble and recovered it at the NU 23.
At halftime, the Huskers were in the dark literally as well as figuratively. A campus-wide power outage put both locker rooms in the dark for about 10 minutes. But adjustments were made by flashlight.
“The read option saved us,” Osborne said. “We hit some cracks.”
Osborne said read options, trap plays and certain quick passes are part of NU’s game plan against blitzes such as Missouri’s and the one Oklahoma State used in 1983 to scare Nebraska in a 14-10 Husker victory.
“But we just had enough guys making mistakes, and enough guys coming through that Steve Taylor got blindsided a lot,” Osborne said. “And he had two or three turnovers that killed us.”
Osborne said a study of films showed Missouri would be a threat.
“We noticed when they really played hard, nobody moved the ball on them much,” he said. “Against Oklahoma State, plays that Barry Sanders normally made 7 or 8 yards on went for 1 or 2.
“We could see it wasn’t going to be easy. We figured we would get their best shot, and we did.”
|Yards per carry||2.8||2.2|
Nebraska is 65-36 all-time against Missouri.
|Texas A&M||Aug. 27|
|Utah State||Sept. 3|
|Arizona State||Sept. 24|
|Oklahoma State||Oct. 15|
|Kansas State||Oct. 22|
|Iowa State||Nov. 5|
|Miami (FL)||Jan. 2|
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