And So It Begins: Huskers and Tigers Clash in Columbia

Josh KleinCorrespondent IOctober 5, 2009

Missouri and Nebraska fans have seen their teams beat, and in some cases rout, opposing teams this season. 

The problem: None of it really means anything any more.  Missouri only played one team with a winning record, and that team is in the FCS: Furman. 

Nebraska, on the other hand, has won the Sun Belt title for the first time in School History.  That's not impressive by any stretch of the imagination, and the only real test for the Huskers came in a heartbreaking loss in the hostile environment in Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, VA.

Both teams are confident coming into the Thursday night matchup, and why shouldn't they be: Two teams with a combined record of 7-1 come and clash in Columbia on national television.

I never thought I would say this, but Missouri's confidence stems more from their past than from the present.  The last two years the Tigers have owned the matchup, not only have they owned it, they have lorded it over the Huskers with a combined score of 93-23. That's a 60-point difference and one that Missouri fans don't want to let slip away. 

Not only that, but the last three times the Husker's have made the trip down to Columbia, they have lost, and lost big.  Scores of 41-24, 41-24, and 41-6 are enough to make any Husker fan nervous about the trip down to Columbia.  Combined, the score looks even uglier, 123-54. 

With a new quarterback and new playmakers, the Tiger's are eager to show the nation that they didn't go anywhere after Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin, and Chase Coffman left, and to prove that they want to dominate the Huskers once again.

Nebraska's confidence actually comes not from the past but from the present.  The second year of the Bo Pelini era features a defense that plays inspired, well-coached football and pitched their first shutout in three years a few weeks ago, as well as an offense that features arguably the best running back in the Big 12 in Roy Helu Jr.

So who will overcome?  Which team will come out on top Thursday night?  I think I know, and I don't think it's because I'm a Nebraska homer.

Missouri comes in wanting to prove that their offense hasn't missed a beat since the home run combinations of Jeremy Maclin, Chase Coffman, and Chase Daniel left town.  And so far, well, they have been serviceable. 

While Blaine Gabbert hasn't thrown any interceptions this season, it has been noticed both by his fans and by opposing teams that he has made few ill-advised passes in games against Bowling Green and Nevada that made me hold my breath and think, "That would have  been an interception in Big 12 play."

Regardless of what I think, the facts speak for themselves: Derrick Washington has been nonexistent in the first three games of the season, forcing the onus of the offense to fall on Blaine Gabbert's arm and a stable of receivers that, besides Denario Alexander and Perry seem unproven.

The offense really isn't the issue for Missouri though, it's the defense that has Missouri fans shaking their heads and praying for a miraculous turn around before Big 12 play.

Let's start with the bright spot.  In a few words: Sean Witherspoon.  Other than that, there are more questions than answers for the Tigers.

This is a group that looked fast and inspired against Illinois in week one but has shown it's true colors in the following weeks:

Teams like Bowling Green, Furman, and Nevada all had success on offense against this defense. 

The real downside: They all had success in different areas. 

Furman threw for over 300 yards against the Tigers.

Nevada rolled up over 200 yards on the ground and Bowling Green threw for over 200 and ran for over 100 against this Tigers defense. 

If Missouri wants to win this game they need to shore up that run defense.  Especially if they expect to oust Nebraska's Roy Helu Jr. this Thursday night.

A need to shore up their pass defense is evident as well, that is, if they don't want to see Zac Lee throwing to eight different receivers all night long.  This is the night where many questions can be answered for this unit, either good or bad. 

Another factor: Missouri has yet to face a team with as much talent as Nebraska. While Bowling Green and Nevada are respectable mid-majors, neither team holds a candle to Nebraska's talent level.

All this leads to me thinking, we have a chance.  Not just a chance, but a good chance to finally get a win on the road against a respectable opponent, and our first in three tries against the Missouri Tigers in Columbia.

Nebraska's offense has started to click, and while no go-to receiver has been found a steady stable of eight wide receivers and tight ends can be harder to game plan for, especially for a defense as porous as Missouri's.

The run defense of Missouri has been pathetic this year, with a less-than-large defensive line being easily pushed off the ball against Nevada.  That means that arguably the best running back in the Big 12 will have some big holes to run through if Missouri doesn't sure that defense up a bit.

As I see it right now the strengths of the Nebraska offense match up too well with the weaknesses of the Missouri defense.  The lack of a defensive line to stop the running game and the lack of a shut down corner or experienced safety to shutdown the passing game.

As far as defense goes, I have to give Nebraska the edge in this area, too.  Pierre Allen, Barry Turner, Cameron Meredith, Ndamukong Suh, and Jared Crick will harass Blaine Gabbert all night like he hasn't seen this season.

Throw in a veteran secondary eager to prove their ability and you have a perfect storm ready to be released at the sound of the gun on Thursday night.

All in all, Nebraska and Missouri need this win, both teams more than we know.  Call me a homer, call me realistic, actually, call me whatever you like, but this game does not match-up well for Missouri.

That being said, I can't ignore the elephant in the room.  The one fatal flaw that has plagued the Cornhuskers for years.  It is the lack of big-game play in big-game situations.

This is where the edge has to go to Missouri they are used to winning and Nebraska is used to blowing it. 

But could this be a turn around?  Could it be the beginning of the end for the Pinkel dynasty?  Or will it be just another notch in the "I told you so" belt of the Missouri fan base?

Only Thursday will tell, and given the fact that Nebraska is out to prove themselves and their chances in the North.  I have to give them the nod in a close one, 31-27.


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