COLUMBIA - William Moore read the play from the defensive backfield and loaded up a classic, punishing hit.
Nebraska running back Marlon Lucky caught a pass in the flat and turned upfield. After getting an abbreviated glimpse of the incoming safety, Lucky lowered his shoulder and braced for impact.
The 230-pound black-and-gold blur got lower, making Lucky's rushed effort look like a waste of time.
Moore turned the once-vertical runner horizontal in a blink, going out of his way to arrange a painful meeting between the running back's shoulder and the turf. Only a few feet away, Moore's teammates raucously celebrated on the sidelines while the Nebraska faithful could only shake their heads.
Moore's hit came on only the second offensive play of the game for the Huskers with the Tigers up 7-0, but the hit was a sign of things to come. When the lights illuminating Faurot Field went out for the night, the Huskers sulked back to Lincoln after an embarrassing 41-6 loss.
"That play symbolized going out there from the beginning, the first play, and being physical, and that'll just change the whole outcome of the game," Moore said. "With that hit last year, we got a lot of momentum on our side, and the defense went from there."
"Sprinted" might be a more apt term.
Moore's play ignited a struggling defense that soared for the rest of the season, as the less-heralded Tigers unit quietly finished as the Big 12 Conference's top yardage defense. And who's to say Moore's play didn't prompt off-the-field shockwaves as well? The loss to Missouri began a five-game losing streak for Nebraska, a team who lost six of its last seven games in a season that culminated in coach Bill Callahan's firing.
Because of the unrest within the program, the nation's No. 1 pro-style quarterback recruit, Blaine Gabbert, reneged on a previous commitment to the Huskers and later signed a letter of intent to play for Missouri.
But that was last year.
In 2008, the All-American safety wouldn't mind a do-over. A foot sprain suffered in the season opener against Illinois has hampered Moore, and as a result, the Hayti native has missed two of the Tigers' four contests. Nearly three weeks after re-injuring the foot against Nevada on Sept. 13, Moore wasn't wearing a red jersey pullover in practice Tuesday, but he's still far from full strength. Moore says he's "about 85 percent" heading into his likely return for the Tigers' conference opener on Saturday in Lincoln.
"My position requires a lot of cutting, especially off that foot," Moore said. "Whenever I do that, it hurts, like a sharp pain. I'm just trying to block it out."
Moore added that he is able to run full speed, and when he does, he feels little pain.
For all the attention given the secondary's struggles in the Tigers' nonconference slate, the defense has still given up roughly the same number of passing yards in its first four games as it did during the same span last season. Still, the defensive backfield can't wait to get its ringleader out of sweatpants, and into shoulder pads.
"Out there when I'm by myself, I have to make a lot of calls," senior safety Justin Garrett said. "With Willy Mo back, he can help me out a lot with that, and I can focus on what I've gotta do, and not have to be lining everyone up."
Since he has been the starter, Garrett has spent plenty of time in the back by himself, even when Moore has started. In a package installed after Moore's arrival, one defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus calls "Zero," Moore lines up about eight yards off the line of scrimmage and blitzes or stays close to help stop the run. With the size of a linebacker and the speed of a cornerback, Moore is one of a select few collegiate players who can be used in the roving, hybrid position made popular by former Oklahoma and current Dallas Cowboys' safety Roy Williams.
"We mix that up," Eberflus said. "We change it up based on the call, based on the coverage, and we think it's good to give them a mix of things, for (opposing) quarterbacks and receivers."
In the package, junior safety Del Howard usually plays opposite Garrett, but with the big plays the defensive secondary has given up, at least a few players would rather see Moore, a coveted NFL prospect, play more of his natural position.
"I like him (Moore) back, when he's up there with me, he's stealing my tackles and the big plays from me and (senior linebacker) Brock (Christopher)," Weatherspoon said, jokingly. "Nah, but wherever he can be on the field. Wherever he is, he gives us that safety valve and we know he can make plays. If he's back, we know no one's getting behind him."
Not everyone feels that way, however.
"It kind of helps the defensive linemen," defensive end Stryker Sulak said of Moore playing closer to the line of scrimmage. "Some teams think he's blitzing, and even if he's not, it frees us up."
Moore said he felt comfortable in both positions, but the defense's most talented player made it clear where he thinks he can be most valuable to Eberflus.
"I love that nickel position, I've been playing it since the day I got here," Moore said. "I know you get more big hits and interceptions from the top position, but the nickel position is so important to the defense. You've got to be on point every play."
All that could be moot, however, if Moore isn't able to heal and return to his 2007 form.
"The first thing I'm thinking, is just being cautious," Moore said. "The play I did go down on against Nevada, that was a play I was cautious about, coming up on someone and trying to break down. I was thinking, ‘Be safe, be smart,' and you can't think like that on the football field."