Monday, October 1, 2007

Mizzou-Nebraska Redux: 2003 (Part One)

MU faces defensive standouts
Huskers, Sooners are nation’s best.

By Dave Matter of the Tribune’s staff
Published Monday, October 6, 2003

Coming off a miserable game at Kansas - probably the worst of his young career - Missouri quarterback Brad Smith gets to face the nation’s top two ranked defenses in the next two weeks.

First comes the nation’s best, Nebraska, at 6 p.m. on Saturday.

The 10th-ranked Cornhuskers (5-0, 1-0 Big 12) are yielding just 218 yards per game - 27 yards fewer than Oklahoma, the nation’s No. 2 defense, which Missouri plays Oct. 18.

Under first-year coordinator Bo Pelini, Nebraska’s defense has forced 19 turnovers, four more than it forced all last season. The Huskers rank in the nation’s top 10 in both passing and running defense.

Oh yeah, and Missouri (4-1, 0-1) hasn’t beaten Nebraska since 1978, five years before Smith was born.

Those lofty rankings - plus Smith’s woeful day against the Jayhawks - haven’t shaken the sophomore quarterback, MU Coach Gary Pinkel said.

"He’s just dying to play again," Pinkel said during today’s Big 12 coaches’ teleconference. "He shakes things off pretty good. He’s done that since he’s been here."

Against Kansas, Smith produced less than 100 yards of total offense for the first time in his career, passing for just 62 and running for 33. The Missouri offensive staff has spent the last two weeks reviewing film and devising ways to revive an offense that has struggled to consistently move the ball.

Smith has completed 66.9 percent of his passes, but Missouri still ranks 11th in the Big 12 in passing offense, averaging less than 6 yards per attempt.

"We’re just not getting the plays, the perimeter plays, and we’re just not executing at the level we need to," Pinkel said. "We’re not even close. I think we don’t ever just look at the players and say, ‘We have to play better.’ Certainly we have to, but we have to coach better."


Revitalized Tigers say they’re ready for ’Huskers

By DAVE MATTER of the Tribune’s staff
Published Tuesday, October 7, 2003

Giving their first interviews since suffering the first loss of the season, the Missouri football players barely resembled the deflated Tigers that slogged out of the Kansas locker room 10 days ago. Maybe that’s because a sellout crowd and No. 10 Nebraska and its 24-game winning streak against Missouri are coming to Memorial Stadium for a nationally televised game Saturday night.

The Tigers (4-1, 0-1 Big 12) returned to practice last week with a vigor not seen all season.

"Intense, very intense," free safety David Overstreet said of Missouri’s mood this week. "The week of practice during the bye week, every day it was like we were playing Pop Warner football. We were just out there having fun. We were screaming on the sidelines, just happy to be back on the field. We were just trying to get things together, and we’ve got it, man."

"Everyone is more enthused and getting excited about playing again," cornerback Michael Harden said. "I feel very good about this team this week. I’m seeing more energy this week than … probably since I’ve been here."

Missouri’s players enjoyed a few days off early last week, and most agreed the postgame blues had waned by last Tuesday.

"It takes a couple days," offensive tackle Scott Paffrath said. "They don’t want us to dwell on it too long, but when you lose, it sucks. It’s hard to get back out there. You just have to focus on what you’re doing wrong and move on."

"Certainly, I think with a bye, you hold on to it a little bit more," MU Coach Gary Pinkel said. "There’s a certain point, which I’m trying to mature as a 51-year-old, that you let something go. Any wasted thoughts or if you’re thinking about the past has absolutely nothing to do with making you better. You’ve got to evaluate and go on, and I think our players have done that."

For the offense, the Tigers have suffered miserably passing the ball. Quarterback Brad Smith owns one of the nation’s best completion percentages (66.9), but Missouri is averaging a measly 163 passing yards per game. Only 13 teams are producing fewer.

While acknowledging the coaching staff needs to improve its play-calling, Pinkel vowed against making a major overhaul.

"When you have problems, you just keep working through them," he said. "You analyze everything you’re doing, and you try to make it better. You try to keep it positive, which we are, I think. Eventually, you’ve just got to start making some plays and making the whole thing work.

"I’ve been here before. I don’t like being here, but the big thing is to solve the problem."

"Coach Pinkel doesn’t change," wide receiver Darius Outlaw said. "We go week in, week out doing the same things we do. We just put in different plays, and now we just have to execute them."

● HEALTHY RETURN: The offense should get a boost with the return of tight end J.D. McCoy, who missed the Kansas game with a sprained knee suffered against Middle Tennessee State the previous week. It marked the first time the senior missed a game in his four-year career.

"It was terrible," McCoy said. "I felt so helpless losing to KU. But I’m just glad to be back this week."

McCoy started running for the first time Friday and returned to practice Sunday. He said he fully expects to be in the lineup Saturday.

McCoy already has set career highs for receptions (eight), receiving yards (89) and touchdown catches (two).

"I’ll definitely play," he said.

● HURT HUSKERS: The Cornhuskers (5-0, 1-0) have had their own injury problems. Strong safety Philip Bland, nose tackle Ryan Bingham and offensive guard Jake Andersen missed Saturday’s 30-0 win over Troy State. Nebraska Coach Frank Solich hasn’t disclosed the severity of the injuries, but Bingham was spotted on the sidelines Saturday on crutches. Bland and Andersen were injured the previous week against Southern Mississippi. Solich has said he expects all three to return Saturday.

● TAKEAWAY TALK: Saturday’s 97th meeting between Missouri and Nebraska pits the nation’s least charitable offense against one of the stingiest defenses. Missouri’s two turnovers - two lost fumbles against Eastern Illinois - are the fewest committed by any team in the nation. Only two other Division I-A teams have not thrown an interception, Syracuse and Texas.

The Cornhuskers, meanwhile, have forced 19 turnovers through five games, the third-best mark in the nation. The Blackshirt defense forced five turnovers against both Oklahoma State and Southern Mississippi and four against Troy State.

"Certainly," Pinkel said, "those numbers might represent the Nebraska of old."

Nebraska linebacker Barrett Ruud has tied the school season record with three fumble recoveries, a record he now shares with his father, Tom Ruud, who played at Nebraska in the 1970s. Free safety Josh Bullocks leads the nation with five interceptions, already surpassing Nebraska’s team leader from last season, who had four interceptions.


Blackshirts return to dominating ways
Huskers’ top-ranked defense invades Missouri.

By DAVE MATTER of the Tribune’s staff
Published Friday, October 10, 2003

Lifelong Nebraska fan Barrett Ruud describes last season as "the worst year I’ve ever been through." Ruud not only witnessed Nebraska’s defense crumble, he experienced it.

The third-generation Cornhusker started all 14 games at middle linebacker last season. The vaunted Blackshirt defense dipped from mediocre to just plain bad as Nebraska finished 7-7 - its first nonwinning season in 40 years.

Defensive coordinator Craig Bohl was fired and replaced by Bo Pelini, a 36-year-old journeyman NFL assistant with no previous ties to Nebraska. Pelini delivered a clear message to the Cornhuskers.

"He had a pretty simple approach," said Ruud, a Lincoln, Neb., native whose dad, two uncles and great-grandfather played for Nebraska. "He told us it was a clean slate. Nothing that happened before mattered. There were no starters, and he told us we had to play harder than ever. We thought we were playing pretty hard, but you don’t really know how hard you’re capable of playing until you really push yourself."

Presto! The low-key Pelini has the Blackshirts ripping through offenses like Montecore, the 600-pound tiger that attacked one half of Siegfried and Roy last week.

The 10th-ranked Cornhuskers (5-0, 1-0 Big 12) enter tomorrow night’s game at Missouri (4-1, 0-1) with the nation’s top-ranked defense. Pelini has produced such a dramatic turnaround in Lincoln, he’s already being mentioned as a head-coaching candidate for a few teams in 2004.

"This doesn’t really surprise me," Ruud said of the Blackshirts’ success. "We were a decent defense last year - we just didn’t show it in some big games. We’ve always had good athletes. We’re just developing better technique and gaining more experience. We’re learning how to play better, and that makes a big difference."

With virtually the same defensive personnel from a year ago, the Huskers are allowing just 218.6 yards and 7.6 points per game, compared to 361.9 and 23.9 last season, respectively.

Nebraska has forced 19 turnovers after totaling just 21 last season. Last week’s 30-0 win over Troy State was Nebraska’s first shutout in three years.

What’s the difference? Pelini installed more zone coverages and dropped Nebraska’s traditional man defense.

The system has produced a star in weakside linebacker Demorrio Williams, who lines up at defensive end on third-down passing situations.

In a league stocked with stars at outside linebacker - Texas’ Derrick Johnson, Kansas State’s Josh Buhl and Oklahoma’s Teddy Lehman - Williams (6-foot-1, 215 pounds) has arguably been the Big 12 defensive player of the year through the first third of the season. He leads the Huskers in tackles (42), has forced and recovered two fumbles and has 5½ sacks.

"Whoa, that’s like having a safety at linebacker," Oklahoma State offensive guard Sam Mayes said after Nebraska’s season-opening 17-7 win over OSU. "He was in the backfield all the time."

His unusual speed explains why Missouri has used a wide receiver to mimic Williams on the scout team this week.

"If you really want to know," Utah State quarterback Travis Cox said after losing 31-7 to Nebraska last month, "I can still feel him. … I’ve never played against anyone like him before."

For all the progress the Blackshirts have made, they’ve been feasting on some of the nation’s worst offenses: Penn State (81st nationally in total offense), Utah State (104th), Southern Mississippi (108th) and Troy State (110th).

"I try not to read much in the newspapers or on the Internet," Ruud said. "But when I do, you still see some people that say we’re overrated. It seems like there’s always people that want to see Nebraska fall. But that’s good, I guess. It’s only motivation."

Tomorrow, Nebraska faces one of the few offenses it contained last season. The Huskers held Missouri to just 220 yards in a 24-13 win. In quarterback Brad Smith’s first Big 12 road game, he totaled just 157 yards of offense against the Blackshirts, almost half his season average.

"We pursued very well in that game, for whatever reason," Nebraska Coach Frank Solich said. "We matched up well in the schemes. We were able to keep Brad from breaking the long runs out of the one-back counter game that he was so successful at. We’ve got different schemes now, and they’ll definitely try to take advantage of what we’re doing."

"Their system works really well with the players they’ve got," Missouri offensive tackle Scott Paffrath said. "And they’ve got great athletes on defense. When you have guys as good as they have, I think you can plug in any system and it’ll do well. We’ll just try to counter what they’re going to do."