COLUMBIA, Mo. — The seconds ticked away in the third quarter Thursday night at Faurot Field as the Big 12 opener for Nebraska — its whole season, you could argue — hung in the balance.
A driving rainstorm began to lighten after a plague-like, 24-hour pounding dumped more than four inches of rain on this city. It was a city set to erupt in celebration as a fourth consecutive home victory for Missouri over Nebraska looked imminent.
Right then, Cody Green grabbed a football. The Huskers’ backup quarterback was set to enter the game. NU was going to bench Zac Lee, its first-year starter who had yet to complete a pass since halftime.
For some reason, the Huskers didn't do it.
Good thing for Nebraska. The junior from San Francisco engineered a stunning, four-touchdown rally in the fourth quarter as the Huskers stormed back to win 27-12 and erase six years of frustration here. It was a 15-minute statement sure to resound heavily around the Big 12 North.
Did the old giant grow up again Thursday, before a crowd of 65,826 and a national TV audience?
“It’s not about growing up,” coach Bo Pelini said. “It’s about executing. We executed. You gotta play four quarters. We played all four quarters.”
Oh, did the Huskers play in that memorable fourth quarter, earning their first road victory in eight tries against a ranked foe.
No. 21 Nebraska scored three touchdowns in three minutes, 22 seconds to turn a 12-0 deficit into a 20-12 lead. Sparked by a pair of interceptions and what may rank as a coming-of-age performance from Lee, NU moved to 4-1 and 1-0 in the league.
And it looks set to re-enter the top 20 next week — perhaps even the ranks of college-football relevance — because of that fourth quarter.
“It just shows you how strong this football team is,” said junior receiver Niles Paul, who scored the first two Nebraska touchdowns, less than a minute apart from Lee. “To face the type of adversity down here at Mizzou, I think we showed how good of a football team we can be.”
The fourth-quarter assault began with a bang as Lee hit Paul on a 56-yard strike that split through the MU secondary. The Omaha North graduate dragged a defender into the end zone, seemingly trying to will Nebraska back into this game after it failed in all seven quarters this season to score a touchdown against BCS conference foes.
“We knew the offense was going to come back,” said senior nose tackle Ndamukong Suh. “They punched one in and that fueled the fire for us.”
Suh was dominant Thursday, crushing through blockers to hound Mizzou QB Blaine Gabbert. Suh finished with six tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, a pass breakup and an interception.
One huge interception.
“That,” Pelini said, “was big.”
Suh’s interception came on the first Mizzou play from scrimmage after Paul’s touchdown. Suh snagged a Gabbert throw at point-blank range and fell to the soaked FieldTurf at the 18-yard line. It was especially sweet for the Huskers, who had four solid prior opportunities but failed each time to intercept Gabbert, a former Nebraska recruit.
Two plays later, Lee hit Paul on a fade route as Mizzou defenders Hardy Ricks and Kevin Rutland collided behind him in the corner of the end zone.
A two-point conversion try failed. But just like that, Nebraska had the lead, 13-12.
And the Huskers weren't finished. Junior Dejon Gomes, playing as the sixth defensive back against the Mizzou spread, stepped in front of Gabbert’s next pass.
The 6-foot-5 sophomore threw 164 passes this season without an interception. Then the Huskers picked two straight.
Gomes raced to the 10-yard line. On third down, Lee hit late-releasing tight end Mike McNeill for an 8-yard TD to make it 20-12 with 10:34 left in the game.
“We made some plays,” Pelini said. “We had our opportunities before that. We didn't make the plays. In conditions like that, you have to take advantage of your opportunities.
“Our football team showed a lot of character.”
The 24th-ranked Tigers (4-1, 0-1) weren't finished, marching 53 yards to the Nebraska 22. A holding penalty pushed Mizzou back 10 yards to the 32, but Gabbert fired four consecutive incompletions as a blitzing NU defense came hard with pressure.
Finally, the Huskers secured victory by rushing for 68 yards over the next 4½ minutes.
I-back Roy Helu, sick this week and forced to take a separate plane to Columbia with a few teammates Thursday morning, picked up a pair of first downs. Lee ran a QB sneak for another first down just across midfield before Helu broke free for 41 yards and scored on a 5-yard run the next play.
As for Lee, he completed six passes in the decisive fourth quarter and just 14 of 33 for the game. But he threw three touchdowns without an interception and took a shot of confidence from the Huskers’ decision to keep him in the game despite his struggles.
“There was a time when I was actually going to have him sit down and put Cody in,” offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said. “Let him look at it a little bit. But he’s got such character. I thought for about a half-second and said, ‘Nah, I’m going to leave this kid in there, because I believe in him.’”
They believed, even when it looked bleak. And for believing, the Huskers got a landmark win.
|Yards per carry||2.6||3.2|
Nebraska is 65-36 all-time against Missouri.
|Florida Atlantic||Sept. 5|
|Arkansas State||Sept. 12|
|Virginia Tech||Sept. 19|
|Texas Tech||Oct. 17|
|Iowa State||Oct. 24|
|Kansas State||Nov. 21|
Nebraska has played 19 games on Oct. 8. See them all »
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