As Colorado cornerback Benjamin Burney sprinted 78 yards for a touchdown, you couldn't help but shudder at the possibility that the Missouri Tigers were letting a sure victory slip from their grasp.
Starving for their first Big 12 win of the season, Missouri (5-3, 1-3) had sprinted out to a dominating 33-0 halftime lead over a Colorado Buffaloes team that it had utterly dominated in the two previous meetings. And, at least for a while, it appeared as if nothing would prevent Saturday's contest from becoming another one-sided affair.
Looking healthier and more mobile than in any game since spraining his right ankle against Nebraska more than three weeks ago, Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert received plenty of time to throw and, as a result, rediscovered the poise and calm he exhibited prior to MU's three-game losing streak.
With Gabbert, who received accelerated treatment on the ankle during the week, operating at near-maximum efficiency, Missouri's other offensive stars were allowed to have a field day against Colorado's pedestrian defense.
Receiver Danario Alexander , who finished with 123 yards on eight receptions, caught both of his two touchdowns in the first half, and MU's maligned running game, which had not produced a 100-yard performance since Sept. 19 against Furman, re-emerged as the Tigers' offense scored on five of its first seven possessions.
“We came out motivated,” said junior tailback Derrick Washington, who produced 99 of MU's 184 rushing yards on 22 carries. “We lost three in a row and a lot of guys were like, ‘It’s time to win. It’s time to get this victory. It’s time to come on.’ ”
For the better part of 30 minutes, the Tigers could do no wrong. The offense was churning away, and the defense was spending its day wreaking havoc on the sluggish CU offense. It seemed as if nothing would stop Missouri from beating Colorado for the fifth time in its last six attempts.
Unfortunately, one half does not make for an entire game.
As was the case the previous three games, the MU offense failed to score a touchdown in the second half, all but leaving the outcome in the hands of a defense that was still trying to recover from last week's beating versus Texas.
Through its first four conference games this season, Missouri has scored just six points in the second half.
“We really slowed up in the second half,” said Gabbert, who threw for 192 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions. “And that cannot happen. That falls on me.”
By no means does Gabbert need to shoulder 100 percent of the blame for MU's second-half disappearing acts, but his third-quarter mistake on Saturday allowed Colorado (2-6, 1-3) back in the game, if only momentarily.
After the Buffs had cut the Missouri lead to 23 with a scoring drive to open the second half, Gabbert and the Tigers drove back down the field and looked primed to regain their four-score advantage.
That is until Gabbert unloaded an ill-fated pass that landed in the arms of Burney, who ran untouched from his own 22-yard line to trim the lead to 33-17, as well as create some panic on the Missouri sideline.
"It’s amazing when that momentum changes,” head coach Gary Pinkel said. “It’s remarkable. You can feel it, man, especially on the road. I think our defense took over at that point.”
Indeed, it did.
Seven days after getting ripped to shreds by the No. 3 Longhorns, the MU defense played arguably its best game all season. Led by senior All-American linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who tallied a game-high 12 tackles, the Tigers held the Buffs to 176 yards of total offense, including a season-low -14 yards on the ground.
But for as impressive as the defense's showing was over the course of all four quarters, it's what the unit did following Gabbert's second pick of the game that ultimately made the difference. In Colorado's five possessions following Burney's pick-six, the Buffaloes gained 77 yards on 24 plays, including just 10 on their final 11 snaps.
And defensive coordinator Dave Steckel made sure each one of his players shared in the fun. Utilizing the blitz on more occasions than they have perhaps in the season's other six games combined, the Tigers ravaged the Buffs' offensive line and quarterback Tyler Hansen en route to a season-high eight sacks, including three by redshirt freshman Aldon Smith and one that accounted for a safety.
Yet, despite the heroics of Smith and his pass-rushing cohorts, it was Weatherspoon, the undisputed leader of the defense, who was responsible for the biggest defensive play of MU's 36-17 road win.
With Colorado driving while down by only two scores early in the fourth quarter, Weatherspoon exploded through the CU offensive line and stuffed running back Rodney Stewart for a loss on a fourth-and-inches play from the Missouri 13-yard line.
“It was big to see the crowd’s reaction,” said Weatherspoon, who is zeroing in on MU's all-time tackles mark. “It kind of took the wind out of their sails.”
For all intents and purposes, with Weatherspoon's momentum-turning play, the victory was preserved. Colorado never threatened again, and the Tigers cruised the rest of the way en route to a much-needed win that suddenly has the team feeling a renewed sense of optimism that was previously shattered by an 0-3 start to the Big 12 schedule.
"We’re looking at this like a whole new season," said Smith, who needs only four more sacks to overcome Justin Smith (11) as MU's single-season leader.
The three-game losing streak is now over, so maybe this is a whole new season for the Tigers. The win Saturday in Boulder wasn't always pretty, but its importance cannot be understated, even if some may have left Colorado unfulfilled.
Like those on the Missouri offense.
“We’re not satisfied, but we’re happy we got this win,” Washington said. “We’ve been trying to fight for a win for three weeks and finally got one. It was destined to happen.”
Photo credit: Nick King/Columbia Daily Tribune