Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Mizzou-Nebraska Redux: 2003 (Part Two)

Twenty-five years and counting
MU’s last victory over Huskers has become pleasant memory.

“I’ll gladly trade every single yard in for just one more touchdown. That’s really all I have to say. That’s it. That’s it. That’s all there is to it. We got beat.” — Nebraska running back Rick Berns after Missouri’s 35-31 win in Lincoln, Neb., on Nov. 18, 1978

By DAVE MATTER of the Tribune’s staff
Published Saturday, October 11, 2003

Nebraska senior running back Rick Berns sat at his locker inside Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb., and sobbed. On the final day of the regular season, he had just become Nebraska’s all-time leading rusher with 255 yards against Missouri — the most any player had ever totaled against the Tigers. He never had a game that started so promising end so terribly.

Berns’ first carry went for 82 yards, giving Nebraska a touchdown just 18 seconds into the game.

His last carry went for minus-1 yard, all but sealing Missouri’s third straight win in Lincoln. When Tom Sorley’s fourth-down pass fell incomplete, the Tigers had officially spoiled the Cornhuskers’ national-championship dreams, winning 35-31.

“They just beat us,” Berns said afterward. “I really can’t say anything else. Missouri just gave a super effort.”

His tears represent the last wept in sadness by a Cornhusker after playing Missouri. Twenty-five years later, the Tigers are still seeking their first win over Nebraska since that November afternoon.

As Warren Powers, the architect of that day’s upset, and several of his former Missouri players reunite today at Memorial Stadium, the Tigers will attempt another stab at breaking the skid. Since Missouri’s last win against the Cornhuskers, the Tigers have had five head coaches: Powers (1-6 against NU), Woody Widenhofer (0-4), Bob Stull (0-5), Larry Smith (0-7) and Gary Pinkel (0-2). Nebraska, meanwhile, has won three national championships.

A quarter of a century after beating Nebraska, his alma mater and the program he helped coach for eight seasons, Powers can hardly believe the drought continues.

“The rivalry between Missouri and Nebraska, even in Nebraska’s heyday, was always huge,” Powers said this week from his home in Chesterfield. “When I was at Nebraska and we played Missouri, you knew you were in for a dogfight. … I didn’t think it would never happen again.”

Phil Bradley, Missouri’s quarterback that day, would never have thought 25 years would pass before the Tigers beat Nebraska again.

“If you look back at history, that was the” third “straight time that Missouri had beaten Nebraska in Lincoln,” Bradley said. “Just looking at that alone, you would have thought we would have done it again.”

Bradley talks about the 1978 season, Powers’ first at Missouri, as one that could have been for the Tigers. After beating No. 5 Notre Dame in the opener, Missouri started 2-2, with the losses coming against No. 1 Alabama and No. 1 Oklahoma. MU won its next three games, but a shot at the Big Eight title was lost with back-to-back losses against Colorado and Oklahoma State. Sitting at 5-4, a promising season seemed lost.

“We blew a 27-7 lead against Colorado well into the third quarter, and we played poorly at Stillwater,” Bradley said. “Obviously, looking back, if we don’t let those games get away, we probably would have won the Big Eight Conference. But it is what it is.”

For Missouri to earn its first bowl invitation since 1973, the Tigers knew they had to beat Nebraska on the road — just like they had done in ’68, ’74 and ’76.

“We had blown two games earlier in the year,” Powers said. “But we screwed that up, so we knew to get to a bowl game, we had to win.”

Nebraska, meanwhile, came into the regular-season finale ranked No. 2 with a 9-1 record. Tom Osborne’s Cornhuskers had just beaten Oklahoma and seemed poised for an Orange Bowl berth against Penn State to determine the national champion.

“Normally during the Big Eight season, Oklahoma and Nebraska played the last game of the year,” Bradley said. “For whatever reason, we got Nebraska after they had played Oklahoma. And by beating them, we ended up costing them the national championship.”

But it didn’t look so promising from the start on a day when the wind chill was close to zero. Berns took a pitch from Sorley and sped around left tackle for 82 yards. Just 18 seconds had ticked off the clock.

“When Berns ran right by us on the sidelines, I said, ‘Holy cow!’ I knew how tough it can get against Nebraska,” said Powers, who was a Nebraska assistant from 1969-76. “But we settled down, did our things and kept our poise.”

The Tigers came right back with James Wilder’s 9-yard touchdown run. Later in the first quarter, a woeful Missouri punt — some things never change — gave Nebraska prime field position, and Sorley soon hit Junior Miller with a 2-yard touchdown pass.

A goal-line stand by the Tigers forced Nebraska to settle for a Billy Todd field goal in the second quarter, giving the Huskers a 17-7 lead. With six minutes left in the half, Bradley hit Kellen Winslow for a 14-yard touchdown, cutting Nebraska’s lead to 17-14.

Berns opened the second half with his second touchdown — a 2-yard run on fourth-and-goal. Behind the trinity of Bradley, Winslow and Wilder, the Tigers answered again.

Wilder broke off a 20-yard run, followed by back-to-back 16-yard passes from Bradley to Winslow. On first-and-goal from the 1, Wilder scored his second of four touchdowns.

Then the Tigers’ defensive hero, linebacker Chris Garlich, struck a devastating blow. He picked off Sorley in Nebraska territory, setting up Wilder’s 4-yard touchdown run that gave MU its first lead at 28-24.

Garlich earned Big Eight defensive-player-of-the-week-honors for his 21-tackle effort. Coming into the game, Garlich was livid at his exclusion from the All-Big Eight team.

“I was a little fired up,” he told the Tribune that day. “We had a couple of letdowns and a couple of bad games. And that damn Big Eight team came out. I don’t think I’m the fifth-best linebacker in the Big Eight. So I felt like I had to prove something.”

Garlich proved his point later in the game.

After Wilder’s third touchdown, Nebraska struck again. Backup quarterback Tim Hager scored on a 4-yard keeper to retake the lead 31-28.

A botched MU handoff gave Nebraska the ball, but with 5:59 left in the fourth quarter, the Tigers took over with a chance to regain the lead. Starting at their own 26, the Tigers used a mix of Wilder runs and Bradley passes to march toward the end zone. Bradley hit Winslow for a 33-yard gain down to Nebraska’s 15. Wilder did the rest, needing two plays to score his fourth touchdown. He memorably bowled over a Nebraska linebacker on his way to the end zone on a 7-yard score.

Then came Garlich’s moment. With two minutes left, the Huskers entered Missouri territory but faced a crucial third-and-3. Sorley handed off to Berns, who was quickly smashed by Garlich for a loss of a yard. Sorley’s fourth-down pass sailed over Tim Smith.

“If we didn’t stop them, we just couldn’t come back to Columbia,” defensive end Wendell Ray said. “It would have been a disgrace to our defense. There were no ifs about it. We had to stop them.”

Wilder finished with 181 rushing yards and was named the Big Eight offensive player of the week. Winslow was equally fantastic, catching six passes for 132 yards.

The Huskers still earned a trip to the Orange Bowl, where they lost to Oklahoma in a rematch. Nebraska finished the season ranked No. 8.

Missouri came back to Columbia with three bowl invitations to choose from. The Tigers picked the Liberty Bowl, where they beat LSU 20-15. Powers’ teams went on to play in four more bowl games. But never again would they beat Nebraska.

The Tigers came close, losing by 10 points or less in five of the next seven meetings. Then came the late ’80s and ’90s when Nebraska poundings became more customary.

“The rivalry’s probably still there, but it was really big back then,” Powers said. “It was always a very physical, emotional game. You always knew when it was Nebraska week. You had a little zip in your practices. It was the same way with Kansas. It wasn’t like you were playing Colorado or someone else. It was always something really special.”

Tonight, Powers, along with several of his former players will be honored during the first half, while MU will be either continuing its misery or recapturing the magic of ’78.


Failure is not an option
Tigers focus on stopping NU pet play.

By JOE WALLJASPER Tribune sports editor
Published Saturday, October 11, 2003

Missouri defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus has an unorthodox pick as the All-Big 12 Conference tailback — Nebraska quarterback Jammal Lord.

“He could start for anybody in the conference at tailback,” Eberflus said. “He’s a really good runner. He’s a strong guy.”

Lord’s critics would suggest that he not only runs like a tailback, he throws like one, too. True, Lord presides over the only passing game ranked lower than Missouri’s in the Big 12, but he’s been good enough to lead Nebraska to a 5-0 start and a No. 10 national ranking.

Although there was much preseason talk about the Cornhuskers opening up the offense a bit under new offensive coordinator Barney Cotton, it hasn’t worked out that way. They rank sixth nationally in rushing (241 per game) and 114th in passing (111 per game).

“They’re pretty consistent with what they’ve done in the past — the power game, some one-back, the counter zone where they fake to the back and the quarterback keeps it,” Missouri Coach Gary Pinkel said. “Everybody does a little bit of that. They run the option well.”

Last year, Lord gained 1,412 yards rushing — including 98 against MU — but he isn’t on that fast a pace this season with 340 yards. He has plenty of help in the backfield, however, with I-back Josh Davis (417 yards) and bruising fullback Judd Davies.

“They’re going to bring you smash-mouth football for 60 minutes,” MU outside safety Dedrick Harrington said. “It’s going to be a heck of a dogfight.”

But Nebraska presents more than a physical challenge. The offense may be old-fashioned, but it puts pressure on defenses to play assignment football — or else. The most obvious example is the option play.

“The big thing in the option is you have to have people on their assignments,” Missouri outside safety Jason Simpson said. “You can’t have one guy miss their assignment and then the other ones try to make up for him.”

Simpson said Missouri usually assigns a defensive end or linebacker to the quarterback, an outside safety to cover both the quarterback and then the pitchman and the free safety to the pitchman. But that can vary depending on the offensive formation and defensive call.

“You’ve got to change who has what on the option, and you’ve got to mix it up on how fast you want him to pitch the ball,” Eberflus said. “You’ve got to mix up your responsibilities, because if you stay in the same defense all the time and say, ‘This guy has pitch and this guy has quarterback,’ they’ll scheme you and crack the guy who has whoever, and then they’re off and running.”

The Tigers saw some option against Middle Tennessee State and Kansas — Pinkel said MU defended it poorly against the Blue Raiders and well against the Jayhawks — but those teams don’t compare to Nebraska in option football proficiency.

The option is only part of the Cornhuskers’ running attack, though. Lord is also dangerous on quarterback draws.

“They spread defenses out, kind of like Middle Tennessee did to us,” Simpson said. “They had an open set. We had one linebacker out wide, then you’d have our Mike” linebacker “in the middle and I was back. So essentially we had five people in the box, which isn’t enough to stop the run when you have a lead blocker, too. What Nebraska likes to do is fake it to the running back, and the quarterback takes it up the middle on a draw.”

Although it hasn’t really been the case this season, the play-action pass has traditionally been a valuable weapon that takes advantage of defenses overeager about stopping the run.

“Fake the option down the line, pull the ball back and a receiver that was” crack blocking “takes off,” Eberflus said. “You’ve got to read your keys.”


Tigers grow weary of losing streak vs. Nebraska

By DAVE MATTER of the Tribune’s staff
Published Saturday, October 11, 2003

Reminded for the umpteenth time that it’s been 25 years since his Missouri Tigers have beaten Nebraska, Darius Outlaw shook his head and groaned.

"When you think about it, that really sucks," Outlaw said earlier this week. "It’s been sooo long. It would be so great to win this game."

Those sentiments have been repeated in Columbia every year since Tom Sorley’s fourth-down pass sailed incomplete on Nov. 18, 1978 - the last time the Tigers beat the Cornhuskers in this once evenly matched rivalry. Before Missouri’s 35-31 win in ’78, Nebraska held just a 37-32-3 advantage in the all-time series.

Since then, of course, there have been a few nailbiters, several blowouts, but always the same Big Red result.

Both coaches agreed past results will be irrelevant in tonight’s 97th meeting between unranked Missouri (4-1, 0-1 Big 12) and No. 10 Nebraska (5-0, 1-0).

"We’re not looking at anything that’s happened in the past," Nebraska’s Frank Solich said. "None of that stuff in the past will be a positive or negative when we line up. It’ll just be something that’s by the wayside."

Said Missouri’s Gary Pinkel: "I’ve only been here two years. That’s as far as I go back."

This was supposed to be the year Nebraska bottomed out, suffering from its archaic offense and too few athletes on defense. Solich gutted half his coaching staff after last season’s 7-7 finish, a move seen by many as a last-ditch effort to save his job.

Instead, Nebraska has cruised to a 5-0 start behind a smothering defense that’s ranked No. 1 nationally and an option running attack that’s been good enough so far. Some Cornhuskers are already talking about representing the North Division in the Big 12 championship game.

"I think the Big 12 North can be ours if we focus on each game and don’t get ahead of ourselves," linebacker T.J. Hollowell said. "We don’t want to look too far down the road, because if we do that, we’ll lose focus and things may not play out like we want them to."

Missouri, meanwhile, was supposed to ride All-Big 12 quarterback Brad Smith to a 5-0 start, challenge Nebraska in a much-anticipated October showdown and possibly supplant the Huskers as North Division contenders. But the Tigers were spanked at Kansas two weeks ago and face an imposing three-game stretch against Nebraska, No. 1 Oklahoma and Texas Tech.

But a season gone astray at Kansas could be salvaged with a victory tonight.

"That hurt," losing to Kansas, Outlaw said. "It hurt a lot."

Said center A.J. Ricker: "We didn’t play very well last week, obviously. It was pretty sad. But we can’t play any worse. We got that out of the way, hopefully."

To break its quarter century of misery, Missouri must revive an offense that collapsed at KU and hasn’t been nearly as prolific as it was last season. The Tigers’ passing game has been powerless at times, requiring the addition of Brad Ekwerekwu, a true freshman wide receiver who wasn’t expected to be needed this season.

"We’ve got the capability to beat any team we play," receiver Thomson Omboga said. "It’s just a matter of going out and doing it. I don’t see no team that can stop our passing offense, even though we really haven’t showed that much yet."

"Last year, I saw how they played" Oklahoma "at their place," Nebraska linebacker Demorrio Williams said. "It’s going to be pretty hostile - really, really rough."

The Tigers face a Nebraska offense that’s averaging a league-best 241 rushing yards per game, led by I-back Josh Davis and quarterback Jammal Lord. For the Huskers, some faces are new, but the offensive formula is the same.

"The thing that stands out about Nebraska’s offense is they know that you know what they’re going to do," Missouri safety David Overstreet said. "And they don’t care if you know or not. They’re going to line up and run it down your throat and try to smash you into the ground. That’s just them. They’re confident."

And with a 24-game winning streak over Missouri, who wouldn’t be?