The backdrop was ominous. An all-day dreariness had befallen Columbia, Mo., bringing dark, thunderous clouds that would part only to give way to the unrelenting sheet of rain that pelted Faurot Field and caused spotty power outages across town.
But none of that seemed to bother the water-logged crowd of nearly 66,000, which sported everything from waterproof body paint to childish flotation devices to keep the precipitation at bay.
Energized by their raucous army of supporters, the Missouri Tigers also withstood the elements, sloshing their way to a 12-0 lead through three quarters against Nebraska Thursday night.
It wasn't always pretty, as a frustrating number of absent-minded penalties halted progress, but a dominating Missouri defense received just enough help from its offensive counterparts to give a national audience an unexpected performance.
Regardless of the conditions, Nebraska—a three-point favorite—was largely expected to exploit the unbeaten Tigers en route to a win that would not only place the Huskers in the Big 12 North driver's seat, but put them one step closer to re-establishing dominance on a national scale.
But here were the Tigers, a team thought to have been too busy rebuilding to compete, gambling on a last-second fourth-and-goal situation and riding a surprisingly stout defensive performance to carry a commanding two-score advantage into the late stages of a game deprived of offense.
But the No. 21 Cornhuskers, which had been outscored by 70 points over its past two meetings with Missouri and had not won in Columbia since 2001, weren't content on letting three lackluster quarters diminish the opportunity of dominating the fourth.
"We just kept fighting," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said of his team's 27-12 come-from-behind win. "In conditions like that you have take advantage of your opportunities. They took advantage in the first half, and we were able to get that done in the fourth quarter."
Ah yes, the fourth quarter. The most important quarter of all. And the one in which games are won or lost on more occasions than any other.
Despite a number of deficiencies that were exposed after being shrouded by a mostly non-threatening first four games, Missouri stayed afloat for the first 45 minutes Thursday. Over the final 15, however, the Tigers finally succumbed to the weight of their flaws.
After cruising through non-conference play mistake-free, sophomore quarterback Blaine Gabbert, facing his most talented opponent to date, panicked under a fierce Nebraska pass rush and seemed zapped off the calm and poise with which he guided Missouri to four consecutive wins.
When it was all said and done, the Big 12's leader in passing efficiency had completed just 39 percent of its passes and thrown a pair of devastating interceptions—on consecutive throws— in the game's final quarter that generously aided Nebraska's furious comeback.
Behind a work-in-progress offensive line, the Missouri running game once again stalled. And, once again, the Tigers' inability to run the ball effectively, instead of helping milk the clock, allowed the opponent to grind away at the Missouri lead.
An overmatched line failed to win the battle at the line of scrimmage, often getting blown up in the process, and creases in the defense were virtually non-existent.
Junior running back Derrick Washington amassed 80 yards, his second-highest total of the season, but he touched the ball only four times in the fourth quarter, including a 23-yard scamper that came in the game's waning seconds.
When Nebraska's lead began to swell, the Tigers didn't all together abandon the run—as some, including myself, had originally thought. Down by only eight points with less than 10 minutes remaining, Missouri made a push to the tie the game with an 11-play drive that featured six runs versus five passes, resorting to splitting carries between No. 2 running back De'Vion Moore and Gabbert, who appeared somewhat dazed after tossing his first interceptions of the season.
All things considered, though, 91 yards on 35 carries and a 2.6-yard average won't get it done—no matter the opponent.
Granted, Gabbert's untimely interceptions put the unit in a pair of seemingly inescapable holes, but Missouri's defense didn't produce a stop when it needed one the most. After imposing its will on Nebraska with numerous blitzes and solid showings from the secondary and defensive line, the defense fell victim to a blown coverage that so crippled the 2008 unit and failed to generate a takeaway in the fourth quarter for the fourth time this season.
And with the game still in the balance, the front seven wasn't able to produce enough push up front to stop Nebraska on a number of critical third-and-short situations.
Blaine Gabbert reacts after spraining an ankle Thursday
And there's the intangibles, or lack thereof. Previously the least penalized team in the Big 12, at five per game, Missouri committed several infractions that can be chalked up to nothing but sheer stupidity, including a number of ill-timed holding and personal foul penalties that routinely killed scoring drives and reversed momentum.
Compounding the frustration was head coach Gary Pinkel's inferior leadership on the sidelines after halftime. Not exactly a master of making adjustments, Pinkel, in conjunction with offensive coordinator David Yost, did admirably stay devoted to the running game—however inept it may have.
But after a crippling holding penalty stalled a crucial fourth-quarter drive that was fueled by a number of successful runs, Pinkel curiously rolled the dice on a desperate 4th-and-20 call from the Nebraska 32 yard line. Rather than attempt a 50-yard field goal or pin the Huskers deep with a punt, Pinkel put pressure on his struggling young quarterback and a beleaguered offensive line to pull off the low-percentage conversion, playing right into the hands of Pelini and the Huskers.
Keeping a team as balanced as Nebraska down for three-fourths of the game was impressive to say the least, but the fact that Pinkel and his staff were so thoroughly outcoached in the fourth quarter was disturbing, particularly when considering how much emphasis Pinkel puts on finishing a with conviction.
Miscues are to be expected from a team as young as Missouri, but getting outscored 27-0 in the fourth quarter at home against a conference rival is inexcusable.
After the dust (or should I say rain) had subsided a bit, no one lamented this point more than Pinkel.
"There were a lot of opportunities the first three quarters," he said. "If we had done a better job of executing on both sides of the ball, it might not have gotten like that in the fourth. This is a tough loss."
In the wake of Thursday night's nationally televised implosion, Missouri is currently learning a harsh lesson that will only benefit its future.
And though the darkness that filled the sky overlooking Faurot Field still lingers a day later, bright days lie ahead for the Tigers—if they choose to take advantage.
It's true that Missouri is now facing an uphill battle for the Big 12 North title, but the weeks to come are filled with chances at redemption and the opportunity to crawl back into the race.
On Oct. 17, the Tigers will travel to Stillwater to take on a wounded Oklahoma State team that hardly resembles the one that ascended to No. 5 in the polls with a season-opening win over Georgia.
With a multitude of questions defensively, the Cowboys are made even weaker with the injured ankle of running back Kendall Hunter and the absence of All-American wide receiver/return man Dez Bryant, who was suspended by the school for the rest of the season for lying to the NCAA regarding a visit to the home of former NFL star Deion Sanders.
An impressive road win over Oklahoma State would give Missouri the jolt it needs to re-enter the polls, as well as serve as a confidence-builder the week prior to a Oct. 24 showdown at home versus No. 2 Texas.
Needless to say, a win over the Longhorns is a long shot, but don't discount the possibility that Missouri will be a proverbial trap game for Texas, having the Tigers sandwiched in-between games against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.
And then there's the remaining schedules for Nebraska and fellow North favorite Kansas. If Missouri can negotiate an even mark against Oklahoma State and Texas, the Tigers can put some pressure on their divisional rivals.
Currently in the middle of their schedule's most daunting stretch, the Tigers spend most of late October and the month of November playing lesser conference opponents while the Huskers and Jayhawks each have to deal with the Big 12's best, in addition to playing one another.
After playing Texas Tech next week, Nebraska will get Oklahoma at home and Baylor on the road before meeting Kansas on Nov. 14 in Lawrence.
Meanwhile, Kansas plays the Sooners at home in two weeks, before traveling to Austin to face Texas and Kansas City to clash with Missouri in the season finale.
Nebraska, from this point forward, will and should be seen as the Big 12 North favorite, but by no means is the division decided.
The Huskers own a crucial tiebreaker over the Tigers, but with two games yet to be played between the three contenders, many things can happen.
And though vast improvement is needed, Missouri can re-enter the conference picture and regain respect as quickly as it was washed away in a matter of 15 minutes Thursday.
No pun intended.
Sophomore linebacker Will Ebner is scheduled to undergo a scope of his right knee Monday. Ebner tore the lateral meniscus in his right knee in the fourth quarter against Nebraska.
Ebner is currently considered to be out indefinitely, but the scope will determine the severity of the injury and his timetable.
The injury to Blaine Gabbert's right ankle is being classified as nothing more than a sprain right now. Gabbert's ankle was placed in a protective boot after Thursday's game, and head coach Gary Pinkel will update his condition on Monday.
Photo credit: Nick King/Columbia Daily Tribune