Nebraska at Missouri 10-8-09

October 8, 2009

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(21) Nebraska (3-1) at (24) Missouri (4-0)

Thursday, October 8th, 9:00 p.m. (et)

GAME NOTES: The 21st-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers and the 24th-ranked Missouri Tigers open their respective Big 12 Conference slates against each other on Thursday night in Columbia.

The Big 12 North may not have as many heavyweights as the South, but there are some quality teams and Nebraska and Missouri are two that figure to compete for the division crown. Both teams are coming off a bye and the two clubs have accounted for the last three North Division titles.

The Huskers won three of their four non-league contests, with the lone loss coming in the final moments at Virginia Tech (16-15), which is now ranked in the Top 10. Nebraska’s three wins all came against Sun Belt Conference opponents, including a 55-0 blanking of UL-Lafayette in its most recent outing on September 26th.

“I liked the way they came out,” said head coach Bo Pelini. “We didn’t play perfect by any means, but we did some good things in all phases. Now the season starts. Right now,” he added about the beginning of the Big 12 season.

The shutout was the program’s first since 2006 and it helped Nebraska finish its non-conference slate with a winning record for the 28th straight season.

For the Tigers, they defeated Nevada, 31-21, on September 25th, as they swept through their non-league slate for the fourth straight season. Missouri is now 4-0 on the campaign and primed for a run at a third straight Big 12 North Division title.

This game represents the 103rd all-time meeting between Nebraska and Missouri on the gridiron, with the Huskers holding a 63-36-3 advantage in the series. The Tigers though, thumped the Huskers, 52-17, in Lincoln last season and haven’t lost a home game to Nebraska since 2001.

Courtesy of three blowout wins over SBC opponents, the Huskers enter this game averaging 39.2 ppg and 440.0 total ypg. The offensive success hasn’t come at the expense of many turnovers either, as Nebraska has committed just three thus far. Quarterback Zac Lee has enjoyed a nice start to the campaign and he has completed 64.8 percent of his pass attempts for 927 yards and seven touchdowns. After faltering against VaTech, Lee bounced back by completing 15- of-18 tosses for 238 yards and a touchdown in the rout of ULL.

“Yeah, that was important for me personally,” said Lee about being sharp. “After Virginia Tech, I made an effort to be sharp and get back on track and make sure I refocus myself.”

Lee hasn’t favored one player in the passing game, with tight end Mike McNeal leading the club with 11 catches and two touchdowns, and Curenski Gilleylen paces the team with 255 receiving yards.

In the backfield, Roy Helu Jr. has enjoyed a quick beginning to the campaign and he has rushed for 464 yards five scores, helping Nebraska’s ground attack average a solid 183.8 ypg. He toted 15 times for 83 yards and a pair of scores against ULL, in a game that was well over by the half.

The Huskers have really impressed on the defensive side of the ball and after four games are giving up just 7.0 ppg and 285.5 total ypg. The unit has forced seven turnovers and recorded 10 sacks in slowing down opponents on a consistent basis, though coach Pelini still has higher expectations.

“I thought we’ve made progress, but we’re nowhere near where we need to be in a lot of respects,” said Pelini after the shutout against ULL. “We’re getting better. Like I said, we’re in the right galaxy now, where last year we were a few solar systems away.”

In the team’s triumph of ULL, Nebraska allowed just 222 yards of total offense, while recording three takeaways and two sacks. Safety Larry Asante even returned an interception for a touchdown, and he currently ranks second on the team with 23 tackles for the year. All-America candidate Ndamukong Suh has also been a force along the defensive line and he leads the team with 26 tackles, six TFLs and two sacks.

Missouri has also found success on offense early on, averaging 453.0 ypg, and quarterback Blaine Gabbert has been a big part of that. The first-year starting quarterback is off to a terrific start and he has thrown for 1,161 yards with 11 touchdowns and no interceptions. Those are pretty impressive numbers for the sophomore, who passed for 414 yards and three touchdowns in the team’s last win over Nevada.

“I’m impressed with his poise,” said coach Pinkel. “He’s kind of trying to find where he fits himself in a game, mentally, where he keeps focused.”

Wideouts Danario Alexander and Jared Perry have flourished with Gabbert under center and they have combined for 54 catches, 785 receiving yards and nine scores on the season. The duo were terrific against Nevada as well, with Alexander catching nine balls for 170 yards and a pair of scores and Perry hauling in eight passes for 72 yards and a touchdown.

However, the concern for the offense comes on the ground, where Missouri is averaging just 3.8 ypc. Derrick Washington paces the attack with a respectable 301 yards, including 75 against Nevada, but the ground game has accounted for just four touchdowns thus far. The inconsistency of the ground game has hurt the Tigers in the red-zone, where they have converted just seven of their 15 chances into touchdowns.

Missouri has faced some respectable offenses thus far and the defense has responded well, limiting foes to 15.5 ppg and 351.8 total ypg. The unit has done a decent job in getting to the quarterback with nine sacks on the year, but could use a few more takeaways, recording only six in four games.

In their last game, the Tigers forced a pair of turnovers and came up with three sacks, helping them hold Nevada to three touchdowns despite giving up 364 total yards. Missouri though, showed some weakness against the run by yielding 218 yards on the ground, well above its season average of 133.8 rushing ypg allowed. Stopping the run will certainly be critical against the Huskers’ balanced attack.

Sean Weatherspoon heads the UM defense with 38 tackles on the season and redshirt freshman Aldon Smith has emerged into a consistent pass rusher with a team-high three sacks.

Both of these teams still have a lot to prove, especially Missouri which is depending on some new faces to produce at key positions. The Huskers have the edge experience wise, and they should be able to go on the road and pull out a big win.

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