Sunday, October 31, 2010

Tigers break down in last trip to Lincoln

From the beginning, when the public address announcer boomed, “Husker fans, this is gameday, and there is NO PLACE like NEBRASKA!” during the pregame ceremony, this was an ambush. Before the 309th straight sellout at Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium, the Huskers shattered illusions about Missouri being a national title contender.

The start of the game was surreal. Three and out by Missouri. A 66-yard touchdown run by Roy Helu Jr. on Nebraska’s first play. Three and out by Missouri. Nebraska field goal. Four plays and another punt by Mizzou. A 40-yard touchdown pass for Nebraska. Another Missouri punt. Helu with a 73-yard touchdown run. 24-0 Nebraska after 12 minutes. “Is this even real?” my friend Brent yelled.

The game was over at 24-0. The Huskers simply avoided risks and held on for the 31-17 win. With Husker quarterback Taylor Martinez out in the second half, backup Zac Lee threw all of three passes that half, completing one. Helu buried Missouri with a school-record 307 rushing yards.

Missouri was cripplingly one-dimensional. The Tigers ran 76 offensive plays. Gabbert threw 42 passes, 24 of which were incomplete. Six of the other plays were sacks. For a rough estimate, say half of Gabbert’s 16 non-sack rushes were designed runs and the other half were scrambles. (Missouri running backs combined for 12 rushing attempts.) That works out to 56 of 76 plays being called passes, about a 74-26 pass-run breakdown. So much for balance.

With Nebraska knowing passes were coming, the strong Husker secondary smothered the Tiger receivers, leaving Gabbert to dance around, running from both the real and perceived pressure that Nebraska generated with usually only three or four pass rushers.

And, in the most hostile environment he’s ever played in, facing relentless pressure and tight coverage, Gabbert freaked out. He took plenty of hits, but he also rolled out of decent pockets, away from phantom pressure. Missouri burned all its second-half timeouts in about nine minutes, and then Gabbert frantically signaled for a timeout he didn’t have in a goaline situation.

Why Missouri didn’t try running is a mystery. Maybe they thought they couldn’t. Maybe it was because they fell behind 24-0 so quickly. But I think if that’s the case, then you can say the coaches panicked a bit. After Nebraska went up 24-0, Missouri still had nine drives during the rest of the game. There were nearly 48 minutes of game time left at that point. The next three drives after this point featured one run by a running back.

However, Missouri (7-1, 3-1 in Big 12) still has plenty to play for. They are tied with Nebraska for first in the North, even though the Huskers now own the head-to-head tiebreaker. But if Nebraska (No. 7 BCS, No. 9 AP) loses one of its last four games, Missouri (No. 12 BCS, No. 14 AP) could win out and represent the North in the Big 12 title game. Also, an 11-win season and BCS bowl berth are possible.

Next Mizzou plays at Texas Tech (7 p.m. on ABC). Tech is struggling some under new coach Tommy Tuberville (4-4, 2-4 in Big 12), but they have skilled offensive players in Taylor Potts, Baron Batch and Detron Lewis. Mizzou will need a more balanced effort to get back on track in Lubbock.

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