LINCOLN — It wasn't a good old-fashioned street fight that determined the Big 12 North leader Saturday. More like a wrestling match in the playground dirt.
But Nebraska was ready to scratch, bite and kick against Missouri, and not care what anybody thought about this meeting of 2-2 teams playing for the division lead.
"We had to have this one,'' NU I-back Cory Ross said. "We wanted to have it. We needed it. We're still struggling, but this time we fought and we stayed in it for four quarters of football, and that's the type of victory you want as a team.''
Nebraska beat up Missouri 24-3 and took away the Tigers' share of first place in the North Division. As poorly as things have gone in recent weeks, the Huskers left Memorial Stadium controlling their Big 12 destiny for the rest of the regular season.
So style points meant nothing, which was good considering a shaky offensive outing and a surprising save from a defense that had been torn apart the previous three games.
"It's all out there for us,'' NU Coach Bill Callahan said. "This was an opportunity to capture a lead and an opportunity to do something that we talked about in terms of our goals.
"But it's one win. That's all it is. It's one win, and we've got to do it again next week.''
Next weekend the Huskers (5-3, 3-2 Big 12) will travel to Iowa State without All-Big 12 tight end Matt Herian, who broke his left leg in the second quarter. They'll also go without Charlie McBride and the 1994 national championship team standing behind them.
McBride, the fiery former NU defensive coordinator, gave a spirited talk Friday night during a defensive team meeting. Former Husker rush end Jared Tomich spoke both then and at halftime Saturday.
Both were around as the 1994 team was being honored in a 10-year anniversary.
"You could just see the passion in those guys' eyes,'' NU linebacker Chad Sievers said. "How much they loved us and how much they loved Nebraska, and what it meant to be a Husker and wear the 'N' on the side of your helmet.''
Sievers said McBride "literally had sweat dripping down'' as he addressed the team. Cornerback Lornell McPherson said he preached about Blackshirt tradition and never giving up.
"He was fired up,'' McPherson said. "I thought he was going to come in with a calm speech. He came in and he was about as fired up as we were.''
The Nebraska defense responded by holding Missouri (4-4, 2-3) to 328 total yards, well below the 447.0 average it had allowed the previous three weeks. The Huskers stopped the run — 35 carries for 51 yards — and forced Tigers quarterback Brad Smith to throw 56 times.
The special teams blocked a punt for a touchdown and turned another Mizzou kicking mishap into seven more points. They added a 40-yard kickoff return and averaged 9.5 yards on six punt returns.
All this help was necessary as the Husker offense mostly sputtered until Ross' 86-yard touchdown run with 2:56 left put the game out of reach.
"A win was going to be a win,'' NU freshman receiver Terrence Nunn said. "You just had to feel good about it.''
But offensive woes are offensive woes, and Nebraska can't feel good about the past two weeks.
Ross finished with a career high 194 yards rushing, and Callahan said he would gladly take NU's 209 overall on the ground. But more than 40 percent of those yards came on the late TD run by Ross.
The passing game added little, with quarterback Joe Dailey completing 4 of 18 passes for a season-low 26 yards.
Nebraska was 0 for 14 on third down conversions after going 2 for 11 in last week's 45-21 loss at Kansas State. Between gaining 57 yards on its first drive Saturday and Ross' late run, NU had 95 total yards in a 12-possession span.
Asked if it's getting hard at all to convince the Huskers they're moving in the right direction and improving with their new offense, NU Offensive Coordinator Jay Norvell said he was "a little offended by the question.''
"We just won an important game, '' Norvell said. "I think whenever you win a football game, you've got to be pleased and you move on to the next week.''
Ross carried three times for 46 yards as Nebraska took the opening kickoff to the Missouri 20. The drive stalled and Sandro DeAngelis kicked a 41-yard field goal into the wind.
With the score tied 3-3, Andrew Shanle blocked a Tiger punt to give NU the lead back for good. Adam Ickes picked up the ball on the Missouri 16-yard line and ran it in with 9:42 left in the second quarter.
As Nebraska's defense kept holding off Mizzou, punter Matt Hoenes bobbled a snap late in the third quarter and Shanle recovered after Hoenes couldn't get off a kick and fumbled. Ross followed with a 15-yard touchdown run for a 17-3 lead.
"You can't make errors like that in your kicking game in a game of this magnitude,'' Missouri Coach Gary Pinkel said. "That was huge.''
The Tigers kept coming in the fourth quarter, but Smith missed on a fourth-down pass and then was intercepted by Josh Bullocks. One final threat ended when Smith overthrew Martin Rucker on fourth-and-goal from the NU 8-yard line with 3:50 remaining.
The three points allowed by the Nebraska defense followed a three-game stretch in which NU surrendered 70 to Texas Tech, 27 to Baylor and 45 to Kansas State.
Callahan said NU "ran essentially two defenses'' in an attempt to simplify things.
Barrett Ruud had a game-high 17 tackles — his sixth straight game with 12 or more — and Benard Thomas recorded 1 1/2 sacks.
"I'm just proud of the way they played, their effort and energy more so than the scheme,'' Callahan said. "It's not about X's and O's, it's about the effort that they displayed. I thought we chased the quarterback well, thought we played the run well. Our pass rush came alive.''
It should quiet some of the criticism of Defensive Coordinator Kevin Cosgrove, who was buried with blame during the three-week lapse. Defensive end Adam Carriker said Cosgrove and his staff were a little looser and not so much in players' faces last week in practice.
"The whole thing this game there was a lot more intensity,'' Carriker said. "A lot of you guys have written that we've lost our edge or we've given up or something, and it kind of lit a fire into us.''
|Yards per carry||1.5||5.1|
Nebraska is 65-36 all-time against Missouri.
|Western Illinois||Sept. 4|
|Southern Miss||Sept. 11|
|Texas Tech||Oct. 9|
|Kansas State||Oct. 23|
|Iowa State||Nov. 6|
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