It was a perfect day to decide the definitive favorite for the Big 12 North.
Nebraska’s venerable Memorial Stadium practically overflowed with 85,904 fans — the stadium’s sixth largest crowd in its storied history — to produce a sea of red and chants of “Go Big Red” that have seemingly been indoctrinated in every Nebraskan.
In the Cornhusker State (yes, it really is), Nebraska football is religion, with no major professional sports teams competing for the same dollars.
And on Saturday, both the Cornhusker fans and players showed Missouri it hasn’t quite reached that elite level Tiger fans so euphorically tasted last week after defeating Oklahoma.
The amount of progress coach Gary Pinkel contributed to this program with the OU victory cannot be understated. Missouri, with its bandwagon fan base, finally converted many critics into believers in this team and program. Winning in front of a sold-out crowd on Homecoming against an Oklahoma team for the first time in 12 years is nothing to scoff at.
That’s why I hesitated to turn the page in last week’s column and delve into the importance of MU’s next game against Big 12 North foe (and Big 10 invitee) Nebraska, where the winner would control its own destiny to reach the conference championship game.
Win or lose, a competitive game in Lincoln would only have furthered that optimism, because no one doubted the 'Huskers would bring their "A" game. The only thing that could deaden the progress was a blowout. And most of that hope was carried off by the flying flotilla of red balloons exiting the stadium after NU’s first touchdown only a minute into the game.
So was the game in Lincoln a case of stage fright, or is Nebraska a legitimately better team all the way around?
The ‘Huskers outperformed Missouri in every facet of the game, from momentum to coaching to execution. Nebraska was clearly the best team MU has faced this season, primarily because of its offensive line and secondary, two groups that have fueled Missouri’s own success.
That’s not to say Missouri suffered a complete relapse — the Tigers did battle back to within 10 points and outscored Nebraska over the last three quarters.
It’s just that by then it was too late. The game had been decided. And some of the calls coming from MU’s sidelines were questionable.
Missouri migrated away from its balanced offense last week, as its tailbacks only attempted 12 rushes against Nebraska compared to 30 against Oklahoma, allowing the ‘Huskers to pressure junior quarterback Blaine Gabbert and make it difficult to find open receivers.
All year, Nebraska has used the quarterback read play to dismantle opposing defenses. MU had the game footage from NU’s loss to Texas to see how to successfully defend it, so it was surprising to see tailback Roy Helu, Jr., burn the Tigers three separate times from long distance. Yes, Missouri contained quarterback Taylor Martinez, but they forgot he could hand the ball off.
Missouri is still in excellent shape to create a memorable year. The Tigers’ final four regular season opponents have a combined 7-13 record in conference play. Regroup and take care of business against them, and the Tigers are only one Nebraska loss away from the final Big 12 Championship game.