COLUMBIA, Mo. — Just when friends and foes begin thinking they've seen it all from Eric Crouch, the Nebraska quarterback shows they ain't seen nothing yet.
Crouch pieced together one of the more amazing performances Saturday of his amazing four-year career in directing fourth-ranked Nebraska to a 36-3 victory over Missouri in the teams' Big 12 Conference opener. A sellout crowd of 64,204 at Memorial Stadium and a regional television audience watched the Huskers improve to 5-0 by relying heavily on Crouch's big-play ability.
He racked up a career-best 311 yards of total offense, passing for 120 yards and rushing for 191, 95 coming on a school-record touchdown run that delivered a crushing blow to the Tigers' hopes of ending a streak of losses to Nebraska that grew to 23.
Crouch's rushing total also was the most in a regular-season game by a Husker quarterback and his two touchdowns inched him closer to breaking Mike Rozier's school record for career rushing touchdowns.
"It was tough going today and he had to make some big individual plays to get us out of some jams," Nebraska Coach Frank Solich said. "But when he was called on to do that, he was just marvelous. We wouldn't trade him for anyone in the country. Today ranked up there with one of his best performances.
"That touchdown run was just outstanding. When I saw Eric take off, I thought, well, he has 10 yards. Then, I told myself he had 20 yards. Then he broke into the clear, and it was obvious that he wasn't going to get caught."
The videotape of Crouch's end zone to end zone touchdown run is an instant classic, rivaling great runs from the past by Bobby Reynolds and Rozier. It broke the school record of 94 yards, set in 1979 against Kansas by Craig Johnson and matched in 1981 by Roger Craig against Florida State.
Crouch took what was supposed to be a pass play designed to pick up a first down on a third-and-eight play from the Nebraska 5-yard line and turned it into his signature play.
He rolled to the right, stepped out of a tackle by Missouri defensive end Nick Tarpoff 3 yards deep in the end zone and scooted upfield. He made several rapid course adjustments to avoid Missouri tacklers near the 10-and 25-yard lines, then rocketed into the clear and raced untouched to the end zone.
"We absolutely stuffed him on that play and he takes and makes it a great play," Missouri Coach Gary Pinkel said "He's an absolutely phenomenal player. He's a playmaker."
But Crouch wasn't Nebraska's lone big-play producer on a day in which the offense piled up a season-high 532 yards and the defense held the opposition without a touchdown for the second straight game.
Chip in a career-best day of returning punts by DeJuan Groce (seven for 145 yards) and another strong outing by punter Kyle Larson (49.7-yard average), and the Huskers had the kind of game that adds to the momentum built in wins over TCU, Troy State, Notre Dame and Rice.
The numbers point to a dominant performance — the Huskers outgained the Tigers 532-205, outrushed them 412-67 and outscored them by 33 points. But one would be pressed to describe the victory as a thing of beauty. Instead, it proved to be a contest that was sloppy at times and merely serviceable at others.
Nebraska's first three offensive possessions ended with a blocked field goal, a Crouch pass interception and a fumble by Groce on a punt return. Missouri converted after the field-goal miscue, driving 70 yards in 13 plays to score its only points on Brad Hammerich's 28-yard field goal.
Missouri owned a 108-62 advantage in total offense as well as the lead after the first 15 minutes. It was enough to conjure up memories of a year ago, when the Tigers ran up and down the field at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln in amassing 492 yards in a 42-24 loss.
"Coach Bohl brought that up during the week," said NU strongside linebacker Scott Shanle, referring to Defensive Coordinator Craig Bohl. "It fact, he brought it up several times. It's something that sticks in your head. The way this defense has played and the way we want to play, having something like that happen again just wouldn't be acceptable."
What transpired after the rocky first quarter was extremely pleasing for Bohl. Nebraska's defense limited Missouri to 97 yards on 37 plays after the first quarter. The Tigers averaged 3.1 yards on their 66 plays and converted just 4 of 17 third-down plays. Meanwhile, Nebraska was 12 of 20 on third-down conversions and 3 of 3 on fourth-down plays.
"I thought our guys responded well," Bohl said. "Missouri had a good plan in the beginning, but by the middle of second quarter, I felt defensively that we had the game somewhat under control. As the game went along, I thought we started playing with more and more confidence."
Nebraska took the lead early in the second quarter, with Dahrran Diedrick's 1-yard run capping a 14-play, 73-yard drive. Diedrick scored with 23 seconds left in the half, finishing off a 67-yard, seven-play drive with a 4-yard run. The possession featured a 37-yard pass from Crouch to Wilson Thomas to the Missouri 4-yard line.
"We needed to get a score there and get into a comfort zone," said Thomas, who had three catches for 59 yards. "That allowed us to play pressure-free in the second half and make plays."
Sandro DeAngelis missed the point after, leaving Nebraska with a 13-3 halftime lead. Crouch directed Nebraska on a third-quarter drive that ended with Josh Brown's 38-yard field goal that put the Huskers ahead 16-3. Missouri came back with its biggest play of the day — a 29-yard run by Zack Abron — but the drive stalled, forcing Brock Harvey to punt.
He dropped the Huskers into a deep hole as his 42-yard kick was downed on the 3-yard line. Crouch got a yard on first down and Diedrick another on second. Crouch then delivered what he called "a knife to the heart" of Missouri's chances.
"We were looking for a first down and got a lot more," said Crouch, who was chased into the end zone before breaking free. "I knew there was a hand on me and I felt one on my foot. I was just trying to break tackles and make something happen. That's the longest run I've ever had.
"That was a big momentum shift for us. The game wasn't totally in our control at the time. All week long, we've been talking as an offense about getting a big play, about breaking a big run. It builds your confidence because you know you got the job done even though it was a broken play. The play was designed to be a pass but when it broke down, we had to make something happen."
Crouch's teammates have grown accustomed to seeing their quarterback repeatedly turn nothing into something.
"I was on the route and I was trying to run off the safety when I heard this roar from the crowd," Husker tight end Tracey Wistrom said. "I turned around and Eric's coming my way. Eric is amazing, and everyone in this stadium saw that today.
"He makes people look silly in the open field. He's one guy I wouldn't want to try to tackle one-on-one in the open field. He made four or five guys miss on that one play."
Crouch came back to score again early in the fourth quarter on a 15-yard run, and backup quarterback Jammal Lord finished off the scoring with a 1-yard run with 4:18 to play. Crouch's second score hiked his career total for rushing touchdowns to 47. He needs two more to tie Rozier, who scored 49 times from 1981 through 1983.
Crouch will look to add to the record setting Saturday when the Huskers play host to Iowa State. A road game at Baylor and a home game against Texas Tech follow before Nebraska faces a much-anticipated showdown in Lincoln with third-ranked Oklahoma on Oct. 27.
"It's important for this team to keep building the momentum we've gained over the past four or five games," Crouch said. "The emphasis has been on just getting better. Our mindset is to go out and accomplish that."
Said Solich: "We need to continue on improving as the weeks go by. Right now, we're playing well enough to be undefeated. We have to get ready for Iowa State and another tough football game next week."
|Yards per carry||2.9||5.7|
Nebraska is 65-36 all-time against Missouri.
|Troy (formerly Troy State)||Sept. 1|
|Notre Dame||Sept. 8|
|Iowa State||Oct. 6|
|Texas Tech||Oct. 20|
|Kansas State||Nov. 10|
|Miami (FL)||Jan. 3|
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