LINCOLN — Nebraska dragged a 17-0 lead and momentum over to its sideline Saturday and, based on some past football games, it seemed only natural to question what that might actually mean against Missouri.
The Huskers had been here before and thrown it away like a rotten piece of fruit.
Not Saturday. Not with the Big 12 North lead — and so much more — on the line at Memorial Stadium.
"Everybody just said, 'Keep going, keep pounding,'" Husker cornerback Cortney Grixby said. "That was about it. Nobody made too much of that.''
Nebraska kept sprinting to the finish line this time and beat Missouri 34-20 before a record 85,197 at Memorial Stadium. Stopping short again would have come with some ugly consequences for a team that doesn't always give much indication of how it will run the race.
Now the Huskers need to win one of their last two games to play in the Big 12 championship game for the first time since 1999. You know, the goal that's been stated over and over and over this season, including after back-to-back losses that punted NU out of the Top 25.
"Everybody knew what was at stake,'' quarterback Zac Taylor said. "Everybody knew we had to win this game.''
Nebraska (7-3, 4-2 Big 12) piled pressure and skepticism on its back last week by somehow turning a 16-0 lead into a 41-29 loss at Oklahoma State last weekend. It brought back memories of the night the Huskers led Kansas 17-0 and then needed overtime to win, and even of the day they led Texas 20-19 only to fumble and allow a last-minute field goal.
"I think the team understood what happened last week,'' Grixby said. "Taking nothing from Oklahoma State, but we just felt that we let up and didn't refocus. This week I think there was a focus about this team, a quiet focus.''
The Huskers finished the job this time thanks to an offense that put together two solid second-half drives and thanks to linebacker Bo Ruud, who made two of his three big-time defensive plays in the fourth quarter.
Nebraska's first two offensive possessions coming out of halftime lasted 10 and 13 plays, the latter stretching into the fourth quarter and answering a Missouri scoring drive to make it 34-13. The first stalled in Tiger territory only when tight end J.B. Phillips dropped a fourth-down pass from Taylor.
Missouri (7-3, 3-3) tried to keep coming, using an 18-play, 80-yard march to pull within 34-20. The Tigers found their way back into scoring position before Ruud tackled the problem from behind.
Or, more accurately, he tackled Tiger quarterback Chase Daniel from behind.
Daniel tried to get out of the pocket on third down when Ruud dragged him down for a 13-yard loss. The on-field call was that Daniel had completed a short pass to Jared Perry, but an official review showed Daniel's knee touched turf before the throw.
On fourth and 23, Daniel then threw incomplete with 4:50 left. Nebraska had dodged the most serious threat to its 15-game home winning streak over the Tigers.
Missouri got the ball again after a fumble by I-back Brandon Jackson. But Ruud stripped the ball from Daniel four plays later and recovered with 1:48 to go.
"He has playmaking ability,'' NU defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove said. "He made a couple big ones, didn't he?''
Cosgrove devised a defensive plan that helped Nebraska limit Missouri to six points on eight first-half possessions. In obvious throwing situations, NU played three linemen (all defensive ends), put in freshman safety Major Culbert as a "hybrid linebacker'' and threw five defensive backs into the secondary.
By the time the Tigers started to chip at it, they were in a 27-6 halftime hole.
"I thought at times that we kept them at bay,'' NU coach Bill Callahan said. "They still made some plays, but overall the changeup on defense was effective.''
Nebraska's special teams also qualified as effective after numerous breakdowns at Oklahoma State. And Callahan praised an offense that produced 419 yards and a 10-minute edge in time of possession.
"I think it's the best we've played offensively since Colorado (last November),'' he said. "It was more complete, in that respect, and against a defense that we have tremendous respect for.''
Respected or not, the Tigers lost for the third time in four games, and they hurt their own cause by committing a pair of first-half turnovers that NU turned into touchdowns.
"We have to play better," said Gary Pinkel, now 6-12 in November games as Mizzou head coach. "We have to play consistently better. And we will. We'll get there. I feel very confident with that, and we will learn from it."
Trickery came into play again Saturday as NU took a 10-0 lead late in the first quarter. Junior receiver Maurice Purify stopped on a reverse play and threw a 28-yard touchdown pass to Terrence Nunn, who was well-covered in the end zone.
"It was a better catch than pass," said Purify, the third non-quarterback to throw a TD pass this season for Nebraska.
Purify then made one of his own catches for the 17-0 lead. With three Missouri defenders nearby, Purify leaped for a 7-yard reception from Taylor five plays into the second quarter.
Nebraska put an important cushion on the lead when Taylor threw a 17-yard scoring pass to Hunter Teafatiller and Jordan Congdon kicked a 33-yard field goal in the second quarter. Taylor pushed his season total to 20 TD passes, tying Vince Ferragamo's single-season record set in 1976.
Although Jackson lost two fumbles, he carried a careerhigh 32 times to provide 111 of the Huskers' 183 rushing yards.
NU finished better than before, but Taylor said the finish also could have been smoother.
"It would have been nice that first drive of the second half to put something on the board,'' he said. "That's all we talked about at halftime: 'We're getting the ball first, and let's come out and establish ourselves.' We would have liked to score early on, but we did get that seven points (in the fourth).''
Jackson said NU players tried not to think about what a loss to Missouri might have done to their season. Callahan said their focus during the week gave him a good feeling, and that the Huskers' senior leadership and captains stepped up during a crucial time.
But senior defensive end Jay Moore said it's hard not to squeeze a little tighter as the clock runs down on this season.
"I felt some pressure,'' Moore said.
"I mean, me being a senior, I want to get a ring, so I'm putting pressure on myself to help make this defense play well, and get to Kansas City.''
|Yards per carry||3.7||3.9|
Nebraska is 65-36 all-time against Missouri.
|Louisiana Tech||Sept. 2|
|Nicholls State||Sept. 9|
|Troy (formerly Troy State)||Sept. 23|
|Iowa State||Oct. 7|
|Kansas State||Oct. 14|
|Oklahoma State||Oct. 28|
|Texas A&M||Nov. 11|
Nebraska has played 20 games on Nov. 4. See them all »
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