Thursday evening's battle between No. 24 Missouri and No. 21 Nebraska features no shortage of intrigue off the field.
Nebraska, in seeking its first win in Columbia since 2001, will try to exact a little payback for last season's 52-17 embarrassment in Lincoln. Missouri would love a triumph over a resurgent Huskers program to validate its staying power among the nation's elite.
And then there's the little soap opera involving Tiger quarterback Blaine Gabbert—the one-time Nebraska commit who switched allegiances amid the toppling of the Bill Callahan regime.
Albeit historically lopsided, the series between these two teams has built up intensity over recent seasons. What was once a laughable Big 8 walkthrough for Nebraska—which holds a 63-36 advantage thanks to a 24-game winning streak from 1979-2002—has suddenly morphed into a clash that has the potential to decide the Big 12 North for years to come.
But enough intangibles. What storylines can we look forward to on the field? What individual matchups will determine who gets the early leg up in the division?
Truth is, between two teams as seemingly equal as these, there's too many of critical nature to discuss in just one article. But I'll do my best to narrow the field down to a simple pair.
The Interior of Missouri's Offensive Line vs. Ndamukong Suh
Actually, this matchup pretty much goes without saying. For if Missouri's underachieving offensive line can't hold the point of attack against arguably the best defensive player in the Big 12, it will be a frustrating night for the Tigers and their throng of gold-clad supporters.
Credit is due across the board for the Huskers' noticeably stingy performance, but the nation's top defense resides in Lincoln because of Suh. Equally disruptive against the pass and run, the 6'4", 300-pounder uses tremendous strength to shed multiple blockers and an agility not exactly befitting of his stature to pursue quarterbacks and ball-carriers.
In short, he is the lifeblood of the Nebraska defense. Suh's ability to wreak havoc on opposing offenses gives offensive coordinators headaches, yet it affords his teammates the chance to make plays if he becomes too much of a focal point—thus elevating the play of the entire defense.
In order to adequately neutralize Suh, the Missouri offensive line has to perform exponentially better than it did during the team's 4-0 start.
Largely responsible for the Tigers' shoddy running game, the line—particularly the interior of left guard Austin Wuebbels, center Tim Barnes, and right guard Kurtis Gregory—should have worked off some of the early season rust during the bye week, but it will take an all-around solid night's work to ward off Suh and the rest of Nebraska's defensive line.
No drastic changes in Missouri's run-blocking scheme seem to be forthcoming, so expect more of the same slow-developing read options that the Tigers have managed to execute with success in the past.
And that means offensive coordinator David Yost and head coach Gary Pinkel will rely upon the lateral quickness of the aforementioned trio to target and engage blockers in space, which may often leave Suh, who leads Nebraska in tackles this season, matched up one-on-one with either Barnes or one of the two guards.
Still, it will be interesting to see if Yost attempts to negate Suh's quickness along the line of scrimmage by running right at him, between the tackles, and by putting added pressure on the offensive linemen to hold their ground and drive defenders off the ball—both of which have proven to be tall tasks this season.
During the offseason, Missouri altered its blocking scheme to fit more of a zone system, which included shortening up the massive splits that the MU O-line of past seasons used to feature. And the result has been a slightly more compact formation that has yet to produce significant creases in the defense.
Beginning with Suh, if the Tigers are able to hold their blocks up front against the NU defensive line, lanes for cutbacks will begin to form for the backs and the running game can sustain some success.
It remains to be seen whether the Tigers will continue to employ their mantra of throwing to set up the run, but when Blaine Gabbert does drop back to pass, he needs to be kept clean.
Missouri allows a sack every 28.6 pass attempts, which pales in comparison to the pass-heavy days of Chase Daniel, but the pass protection thus far in 2009 has been nonetheless effective.
But (and it's a big but) the Tigers are yet to face a defensive line as talented as that of Nebraska, so it will be paramount they control the pace up front by any means necessary—which undoubtedly will mean devoting more than one blocker to Suh, who has six pass breakups to go along with two sacks.
To put it plainly, Missouri will force Nebraska to bring pressure from the outside in, meaning the Tigers would prefer to force the Huskers' ends to make plays on the edge rather than give the All-American Suh the opportunity to dominate the interior.
Outside of Texas' Sergio Kindle, Suh is the most disruptive force Missouri will face this season.
Due to the Tigers' penchant for short and intermediate routes, as well as Gabbert's mobility, Suh won't factor in the pass rush nearly as much as the run defense, but his very presence in the middle could be enough to make Missouri more one-dimensional and, therefore, more predictable.
Danario Alexander vs. the Nebraska Secondary
The senior receiver has twice posted career-highs in yardage this season, and if the Cornhuskers are unable to physically bully Alexander and render him into a lesser role, he'll likely record his third monster game of 2009.
Gifted with measureables few wideouts, let alone cornerbacks and safeties can match, the 6'5", 215-pound Alexander is a tremendous specimen who has the ability to snatch the ball at its highest point and run away from defenders in the open field with his long stride.
If the first four games of the season have been any indication, Gabbert, assuming he has ample time, will attempt to get the ball to his trusty senior at every turn. Alexander—second in the Big 12 with 7.2 catches per game and fifth with 101 yards per game—has become the centerpiece of MU's passing game and, as the leader of a young receiving corps, is the one player Nebraska must prevent from making plays.
But the matchup between Missouri's receivers and the Nebraska defensive backfield may end up being a pick-your-poison scenario.
If the Cornhuskers choose to defend Alexander with any combination of players or utilize zone coverage to guard against big plays, opportunities for the remainder of the Tigers' skilled playmakers will become abundant.
Conversely, if Nebraska decides to take on Alexander one-on-one, with either a corner or a safety, an instant mismatch is formed.
Depending on the offensive formation, Nebraska may choose to line up senior strong safety Larry Asante over Alexander. At 6'1", 215 pounds, Asante is the Huskers' biggest defensive back and provides the stiffest physical test for Alexander, ranking second on the team with 23 tackles and tied for first with one interception.
However, if Asante, who was injured against Louisiana-Lafayette on Sept. 26, is less than 100 percent, Nebraska could be in trouble.
No other member of Nebraska's secondary measures taller than 6'1", and the other option at the position—senior free safety Matt O'Hanlon (5'11", 195), who will presumably replace injured starter Rickey Thenarse—is less athletic and not as effective in space.
Not surprisingly, Nebraska is yet to yield a 100-yard receiving game, albeit against three Sun Belt opponents and a run-oriented Virginia Tech team. Hokie receiver Danny Coale did manage 89 yards against the Huskers, but 80 of those yards came on the well-remembered catch along the sideline that led to the game-winning score.
With that being said, none of those teams presented the challenge that Nebraska will face against Gabbert and his wide receivers.
In the past two meetings, Missouri has outscored Nebraska 93-23, yet Alexander has taken a back seat to the likes of Jeremy Maclin and Chase Coffman, catching only five passes for 102 yards. But with those players now gone, Alexander has stepped in to fill the void.
And because not one Nebraska player can match his physical tools, the Huskers may be content with letting Alexander get his yards, instead putting emphasis on eliminating the big play—which is something Alexander has done each of the past two seasons, posting scores of 26 and 48 yards in 2008 and '07, respectively.
Missouri has yet to encounter a defense equipped with the personnel capable of stopping Alexander and they won't encounter one on Thursday night. The Huskers are ranked No. 1 overall in total defense for a reason, but the strengths lie up front, not in the secondary.
If the Tigers give Gabbert sufficient time to scan the field—and he won't need much—he'll have plenty of options, particularly if Nebraska chooses to focus most of its resources on Alexander.
For all you betting types, Missouri is a three-point underdog at home Thursday night. Some things to consider before you wager away your next unemployment check:
1) Missouri is 4-2 against the spread in its last six games against the Cornhuskers.
2) Nebraska is 5-1 against the spread in its last five road games. Maybe you should call it a push and save your money for the Ball State-Temple game on Saturday.
The Lincoln Journal-Star reported Tuesday that Nebraska running back Roy Helu Jr. did not participate in the team's afternoon practice. Head coach Bo Pelini dismissed rumors of a flu bug working its way through the Husker locker room, but he did say that Helu Jr., on top of not feeling well, was not allowed to practice due to academic reasons.
Helu, Nebraska's leading rusher with 464 yards on 73 carries, is expected to play Thursday at Missouri.