Nebraska answered any questions about playing well at home with a dominating first quarter to take a 24-0 first quarter lead, enroute to a 31-17 victory over Missouri. The Huskers came out firing on all cylinders, evoking the memory of Nebraska's 77-28 blowout of Arizona State in 1995, days after the Huskers were portrayed as a team out of control. The 1995 team resisted that characterization, and took that out on the Sun Devils; likewise today, the Huskers took out the frustrations from the Eric Martin suspension on the Tigers this afternoon.
Early on, the Blackshirts set the tone for the game both up front and in the secondary. The defensive line dominated the Missouri offensive line from the opening snap of the game. The secondary locked down on the Missouri receivers all afternoon, meaning that in most cases, Gabbert was literally left holding the ball with nothing to do but either run for his life or throw the ball out of bounds. Gabbert was sacked six times, scrambled a dozen or more times (for some impressive gains), and only completed 18 of 42 passes.
One week after unleashing an impressive rushing attack against Oklahoma, Gary Pinkel and his staff mysteriously decided to abandon that approach in favor of trying to beat the Huskers through the air. Makes sense; Nebraska's shown a weakness to teams that rush the ball, ranking ninth in the Big XII in defending the run, but has been stout defending the pass, ranking first in the conference in defensive pass efficiency. So of course, the logical thing to do if you're Pinkel is to open the game in five wide receiver sets. This afternoon, Missouri's running backs rushed the ball 12 times compared to 30 last week. Let's put that in comparison: Blaine Gabbert had 22 rushing attempts, and most of those were scrambles, not designed runs. The Tigers were one-dimensional today, and that made the Pelini brothers' job that much easier.
True freshman Ciante Evans deserves special note today. After Alfonzo Dennard left the game early with a concussion, Evans came in and played like a veteran. He had a key goal-line stop on Gabbert. Many people have wondered what will happen to the secondary when Prince Amukamara graduates; judging from today, Nebraska should be just fine with Evans slipping into Amukamra's spot on the field. Heck, he could even be an upgrade if he's ever called upon to be a captain on the coin toss. In the postgame radio interview, Amukamara admited that he didn't realize that you should defer your choice if you win the coin flip. Instead, he thought you could elect to kick off like a video game and automatically get the ball to start the second half. Whoops. Sometimes it's the little things that can bite you.
Offensively, it was almost all Roy Helu today. I say "almost", because in the first half, I did see some nice throws by Taylor Martinez. But Martinez's day ended just before halftime when Kenji Jackson nailed Martinez on the knee. Martinez tried to gut it out in the closing minute, but it was obvious that he wasn't going to be able to run the ball, and was replaced in the second half by Zac Lee. Helu's long touchdown runs looked even more impressive on the replays than from my vantage point in the south end zone. Each touchdown run was impressively blocked, but the replays illustrated how Helu outraced the entire Tiger secondary. Speed kills, and Helu made Missouri look slow on defense.
Impressive performance on both sides of the ball, and the Huskers now are in the drivers seat in the Big XII North, since they have the tiebreaker over Missouri with today's victory. But with road games still to come with surprisingly strong Iowa State and Texas A&M (with a new starting quarterback), the Huskers can't afford another slipup like two weeks ago.