COLUMBIA — Nebraska fans have a reputation for being polite to visitors, no matter what the situation is on the field. But nicer fans doesn’t necessarily mean the playing environment is any easier.
“It’s hard to go into a place like that when you’ve got 85,000 or 90,000 screaming fans,” Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel said. “Even though all of them are really nice, they’re the greatest fans I’ve ever (encountered) except ours, it’s pretty frightening.”
As the Missouri Tigers found out in 2006, the Cornhuskers’ famed “Sea of Red” is a very intimidating foe and an important ally for its team.
“(We were) not very good,” Missouri defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus said of his defense’s 2006 performance against Nebraska. “We didn’t play very well, we didn’t execute very well, and, obviously, we were very disappointed in our team.”
In that last trip, the Tigers struggled on both sides of the ball in the first half and found themselves down three touchdowns after 30 minutes. Missouri outscored Nebraska in the second half, but it was too late to matter.
Daniel attributed that problem to youth on the 2006 team, and he admitted that he was shaking and scared when he last played in Lincoln.
“Even though I was a sophomore, it was the sixth or seventh game I had started,” Daniel said.
Inexperience shouldn’t be a problem for Missouri for this trip to Lincoln. Fourteen of the Tigers’ 22 starters played in the 2006 game at Nebraska and know what to expect from the Cornhuskers’ crowd. Eberflus said he hopes that will make a difference.
“You learn from those things, try to focus and get better,” he said. “I think we’ve hopefully matured from those experiences.”
Safety William Moore, who is expected to return after missing two nonconference games, thinks that’s exactly the case.
“The players that we’ve got now (are the difference),” Moore said. “If you look back at the players we had, they weren’t bad guys, but when it came down to it, sometimes they’d (be) double-guessing themselves. The guys we’ve got now, they’re fighters. We’re competitors, and that’s why we’re where we’re at right now.”
How much the Tigers have matured has yet to be seen in 2008. Missouri’s trip to Nebraska will be the first time this season that it has either played a true road game or left its home state.
“That’s true, and I don’t know what to tell you,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “Hopefully, we can handle that. I think you embrace it; I think you like to play it. I think if you’re a competitor, you like being in that environment.”
That’s a perfect description of how linebacker Sean Weatherspoon views this trip.
“I think it’ll be fun,” he said. “We haven’t been on the road yet this year, so I think it’ll be a great experience for our team. It’ll definitely help us later on down the road, and I think we can go out there, focus and don’t worry about the crowd.”
But the crowd could be a big issue for the Tigers’ defense. Defensive tackle Ziggy Hood said the defense has struggled with communication this season and given up big plays as a result.
“We’ve been working on communication ever since it started happening,” Hood said. “(In this game), we (might) use hand signals or getting really close to each other and talking really loud.”
To help prepare for the Sea of Red, the Tigers will practice this week with the speakers on to simulate crowd noise. Pinkel said that is standard practice procedure before any road game the Tigers play, whether or not the crowd has a reputation.
But the atmosphere isn’t the concern for defensive end Stryker Sulak, who was a sophomore in 2006. He said poor execution on the Tigers’ part, not intimidation, was what cost them the last time they were in Lincoln.
“I think we handled it all right, (but) we made a lot of mistakes, especially on the defense,” Sulak said. “I had a lot of mistakes myself. But as a team, we’re more mature this time around. I think we can handle it this time, I think we’ll play well under pressure.”