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C O M M E N T A R Y
T A D    S T R Y K E R
October 8, 2009

 
Three quarters of hell, one quarter of redemption.

And boy, was it ever worth it.

Nebraska passed its first major Big 12 Conference test, partly through guts and determination, partly through strong defense, but mainly because Zac Lee and the Cornhuskers found out that they could make big plays when they had to.

And the Huskers had to do it in a place that has been their house of horrors this decade. The Cornhuskers had lost three straight in Columbia by lopsided margins, and last year the Tigers gave Nebraska one of its worst homefield beatings ever. In the days leading up to the game, Missouri fans and media milked that fact for all it was worth.

Missouri owned the Big 12 North now, they said. Lee would not be able to survive the pressure the Tigers would bring, they said. And for three horrendous quarters, it looked like they were right.

To win this one, the Huskers had to tie their best-ever fourth-quarter comeback, matching the 1966 Huskers, who trailed Colorado 19-7 in the final period but came back to win 21-19 in Boulder.

Lee survived a baptism of fire in a deluge of near-Biblical proportions and put together a tremendous closing burst long after much of Husker Nation — including me — was seriously wondering if Shawn Watson was going to pull him and try his luck with freshman Cody Green.

It was going that badly for Lee, who at one point was eight-for-23 passing and looking more and more uncertain by the minute as his offensive line started to self-destruct with the same kind of penalties that plagued it during the loss at Virginia Tech.

Meanwhile, sophomore quarterback Blaine Gabbert, the one that got away from Nebraska, was gutting out a reasonably good first three quarters on what looked like a sprained right ankle. He was moving the Tigers just enough to take advantage of a self-destructive Nebraska offense and kicking game that seemed determined to put as much pressure on the NU defense as they possibly could.

And the demons — or whatever they were — continued to plague Nebraska. A short Missouri kick caromed off an unsuspecting Husker to give the Tigers good field position, something that happened about the same place on the same field in 2003 when Missouri started its run of success against NU. Missouri used well-timed blitzes to disrupt the Husker running game and Lee’s passing, in much the same way they did to sophomore quarterback Turner Gill and NU back in 1981.

 
When Prince Amukamara dropped a likely pick-six in the second quarter, then slipped and fell on a pass play just before halftime that resulted in an unlikely touchdown for Missouri, and when Ndamukong Suh and Larry Asante dropped back-to-back interceptions that allowed the Tigers to eke out another field goal and a 12-0 lead at the end of three quarters, you had to wonder if a plague of locusts in slickers paddling up the Mighty Mo in rubber rafts to pillage the Cornhusker State was next on the docket. The Huskers seemingly were back to their old tricks — almost making big plays.

But to their credit, the Huskers didn’t crack. The Blackshirts refused to buckle, Bo Pelini didn’t lose his cool and Zac Lee dropped back in the rain and tossed a perfect pass to Niles Paul streaking toward the end zone on a well-designed post pattern. Fifty-six yards and a touchdown.

That was all it took to break through the barricades of frustration that Missouri had constructed.

Suh, who became a frontrunner for All-American honors at defensive tackle in this game, plucked an interception out of the wet night sky and returned it to the Missouri 18. Two plays later, Paul made another big play, outfighting two Missouri defenders for a 13-yard touchdown pass.

The dam burst and the demons rushed downstream like so many gallons of putrid Missouri flood water. A few moments later, Dejon Gomes jumped a short route and picked Gabbert clean, returning the interception to the Tiger 10. Moments later, Lee beat a blitz and hit a wide-open Mike McNeill with a perfect strike. Was that the superstructure of Missouri’s claim to Big 12 North dominance I saw floating downstream?

There go Missouri’s talking points. Now the Show Me State has to prove that it can come back and fight through a tough stretch in its schedule to stay in contention in the North. This was potentially a big tiebreaker win for the Big Red.

"We showed a lot of character when things weren't going our way in some tough conditions," Nebraska Coach Bo Pelini said. "But we made some plays, got some turnovers and I'm really proud of our guys."

Despite the demons, despite the penalties, despite the lackluster offense and troubling kicking game, Nebraska broke through and grabbed a big road win that will help the Huskers gain credibility around the nation — and in their own division.

 

Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at tad.stryker@gmail.com. | Archive

 
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