RENO, Nev. — Quarterback Blaine Gabbert and Missouri needed a breakthrough.
With the running game stifled, and the Nevada offense putting together taxing drives, the Tigers had ceded most of the control of the first half to the Wolf Pack.
Missouri found its break late in the second quarter, but not by design. From his own 31-yard line, Gabbert scrambled and was nearly sacked before he found Danario Alexander for a short pass.
Alexander, ball in hand, broke away from his initial defender, and the play was over. The senior wideout waltzed into the end zone to give Missouri a 12-7 lead.
"Like a scramble drill or whatever, Blaine, he kept his eyes on me, and I caught the ball and kind of split the defense," he said.
It was the sign of a big day for Alexander, who set a career high with 170 receiving yards. With that play and another huge touchdown grab in the third quarter, Alexander helped Missouri pull away from Nevada 31-21 in the Tigers' first true road game of the season.
"We needed somebody to step up," he said. "They (the touchdowns) were great momentum boosters. The offense came out slow but we had to make plays to keep this thing going."
The Missouri defense gave up six first downs on Nevada's opening drive, as the Wolf Pack capped a 13-play drive over nearly six minutes with a two-yard touchdown run. Still, the defense was effective early, keeping Nevada out of the end zone for the remainder of the half.
But the second half began ominously, as Missouri could not stop simple handoffs out of Nevada's pistol formation. Luke Lippincott ran for the first six plays from scrimmage, totaling 28 yards.
Those runs appeared to be adding up to a potential game-tying drive with Missouri up 21-13 early in the fourth quarter. But when Lippincott lost the football at the Missouri three-yard line, defensive end Brian Coulter fell on it.
"That was huge," linebacker Andrew Gachkar said. "That was probably the biggest play I've ever been on on defense. You're on the three-yard line, and you gotta stop them, and we got a fumble forced. That's huge. That says right there what our defense is about. We've got heart."
Nevada relied on a solid all-around running effort to maintain possessions, as evidenced by Lippincott's 23 carries for 114 yards.
"He's a tough runner," Gachkar said. "Obviously, you can see his passion in the way he runs, but we just buckled down. We said to ourselves, 'If they're going to beat us, they're going to have to try to beat us up top (passing). We're going to bite down on the run and not let them go anywhere.' That's what we did."
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, starting plays a few yards behind center as Missouri does on occasion, frequently rushed out of trouble for sizable gains. The most obvious example was an 11-yard scramble along the open left sideline to give Nevada a 13-12 lead early in the third quarter.
"That's definitely something you have to gameplan for," Gachkar said. That's killer on defenses because if you don't keep contain on your blitzes … he was just running free, and that hurts. But in the end, we got it taken care of, so it was all good."
Kaepernick frequently held the ball in front of his running back to try to confuse the defense. Linebacker Will Ebner, who started in place of Luke Lambert, said defending that kind of option can be difficult.
"Really it just comes down to assignments and responsibilities," he said. "The option's a hard run game to stop."
Missouri was aided early by a Nevada mistake. While the offense made no gain to start the game, the following punt was fumbled at midfield. Missouri recovered and, after driving, settled for a 22-yard Grant Ressel field goal, his first of four on the night.
Derrick Washington, who struggled along with the other rushers for much of the game, broke off a 42-yard run on a fourth-quarter drive that eventually gave Missouri a 28-13 lead.
Gabbert's 48-yard bomb to Wes Kemp at the Nevada 10 yard line set up the final Tiger field goal.
Nevada's Brandon Wimberly caught a short Kaepernick pass with 2:32 left in the game.