Nebraska Punches, Grabs and Holds On
By Paul Myerberg // Oct 31, 2010
Knocked down but not out by Nebraska’s early outburst, it helped that Missouri found itself in familiar waters. The Tigers trailed Oklahoma entering the fourth quarter the previous Saturday, if you recall, but stormed past the Sooners with 16 unanswered points to open the final 15 minutes. So the Tigers scratched their way back into this game, even pulling within 10 points midway through the third quarter, before coming to the realization that no, this isn’t our day. It takes a tough team to take an opponent’s best punch — be knocked down, but get back up; it takes a tougher team to return the favor.
Through the first quarter, the Cornhuskers turned back the clock: for a time, Nebraska was Nebraska, Missouri was Missouri — think 1979-2002. The Tigers opened the game with a three-and-out; Nebraska took over, with Roy Helu taking the first play from scrimmage 66 yards for a touchdown. That would be a theme.
An Alex Henery field goal and a 40-yard touchdown pass from Taylor Martinez were sandwiched by yet another long scoring run from Helu: to end the barrage, the senior scored from 73 yards out — 24-0 Nebraska, end of the first quarter. For a running back, happiness is a seven-yard gain that knocks your yards per carry average down from roughly 43 yards to merely 25. That’s when you know things are going well.
It was a knockout punch, an overhand right, though Missouri was merely dazed, not out cold. The Tigers scrambled back to their feet in the second quarter, slowly beginning to turn the tide of momentum heading into halftime. Missouri scored on a neat fourth down conversion midway through the second frame, surprising Nebraska by eschewing the familiar quarterback sneak with inches to go: instead, Blaine Gabbert tossed left to his running back, De’Vion Moore, who scored nearly untouched from 33 yards out.
If the Tigers had scored again before the half, they might have had a chance. There’s a big difference — a mental difference — between 17 points and 10 points; there’s the confidence boost for Missouri, not to mention a slight twinge of fear for the Cornhuskers. Even a field goal would have loomed large, particularly after Gabbert found T.J. Moe for a touchdown later in the third quarter.
At that point, at 24-14, it was decision time for Nebraska. Martinez was out: he suffered what looked like a thigh bruise late in the second quarter, which limited his running ability. If Martinez can’t run, well, it’s time for Zac Lee. The senior delivered: if not on the stat sheet, at least in terms of supplying a steady hand for an offense looking to hold on, not run Missouri ragged.
It was Helu, yet again, that supplied the final push. His final touchdown run — his third of the game — came right after Gabbert’s touchdown pass, pushing the lead back to 17 and, thanks to the Nebraska secondary, effectively ending the day. Helu didn’t just break his own personal record for rushing yards in a game — he had never cracked the 200-yard mark, let alone the 300-yard mark; he broke the Nebraska school record, which surely means something.
Now, the game ball surely goes to Helu. Overshadowed by the precocious redshirt freshman quarterback, Helu has delivered on a weekly basis as the secondary option in the Nebraska ground game. Let’s also give credit to Bo Pelini, who orchestrated a defensive scheme that made every yard a battle for Gabbert and the Missouri offense.
Prince Amukamara bounced back in a big way: one week after Oklahoma State’s Justin Blackmon had his way with the potential all-American, Amukamara showed why many tout him as the nation’s best cornerback. Along with Alfonzo Dennard, Amukamara forms one-half of the nation’s finest cornerback tandem; when Dennard was lost to a concussion in the first half, freshman Ciante Evans stepped up in a very difficult situation: the future looks bright for the rookie.
Finally, despite the loss, I was impressed with how Gary Pinkel maintained his composure after the ugly start — his team could have very easily folded up shop. Gabbert, despite the poor statistical performance, showed the poise befitting his development into one of the Big 12′s best quarterbacks; he’ll be a Heisman contender in 2011.
Despite the loss, the Big 12 North title remains very much in play for Missouri. Though Nebraska holds the head-to-head tiebreaker, the two teams are currently tied at 3-1 in conference play; Missouri simply needs to win out — not too difficult a scenario to picture — and have Nebraska lose one its last four in order to play for the conference championship. I can see that happening.
When push came to shove, however, Nebraska’s best punch was too much for Missouri to handle. In that sense, even as the old rivals bid farewell after decades of competition, little has changed: Nebraska’s best was always better than Missouri’s, particularly in Lincoln.
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Tags: Blaine Gabbert, Bo Pelini, Ciante Evans, Missouri, Nebraska, Prince Amukamara, Roy Helu, Taylor Martinez
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