Missouri football players prepare for Huskers, first conference game

Thursday, October 8, 2009 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:37 a.m. CDT, Thursday, October 8, 2009
Missouri tailback Derrick Washington tries to fight his way through the Bowling Green defense in the first half of Saturday's Tigers victory.

COLUMBIA – For the Missouri football team, playing Nebraska will always be special.

Recent Missouri teams beat Nebraska four times in the past six years. In contrast, Nebraska won the previous 24 meetings.

But before a prime time, weeknight collision between the two Big 12 North foes, Missouri's top players say it's important to make sure everyone is prepared to take advantage of an opportunity against stiff competition.

"When you jump into conference play, no matter who it is, it's always bigger than the first four games," senior linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. "You gotta make sure your senior leadership does a great job of just relaying it to the younger guys that this is big time."

Among this season's better-known Missouri players, only a few had a chance to make major contributions when Nebraska last came to Columbia two years ago. Weatherspoon led the team in tackles that night, while senior wide receiver Danario Alexander and junior running back Derrick Washington scored touchdowns.

"This is the Big 12," Weatherspoon said. "People who never played in this conference, really we got to let them know, you really don't know (what it's like) until you get out there. (They) have to see it for themselves. They see the crowd and the intensity of Nebraska. Everybody's going to be jacked up and everybody's going to be excited for this one. I think they'll come along pretty quick."

Washington said he thinks the younger Tigers are ready for a tougher test.

"They're adjusted now," he said confidently. "This is how we get to our Big 12 Championship. It starts on Thursday. A lot of people have been focused this week. We just came off one of the most intense practices we had this year."

Alexander downplayed the previous installments of the Missouri-Nebraska showdown in which Missouri won blowouts.

"That was a great game, but that was a couple years ago," he said. "You can't focus on the past. Obviously they're thinking about the past, and they want to get back at us. So we just got to push on for this game. I mean they're a solid team offensively and defensively. They're gonna be the best team we've played this fall."

Washington will have a particularly important role tonight. He leads a Tigers running attack that has struggled to cobble together big gains. He said he is aware of the challenge he and his fellow running backs have in facing highly-touted Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.

"They got the big D-lineman (Suh) up front who's leading the team in tackles. He's going to make some plays," Washington said. "The big guy up front. You know who he is. He's a great player. He's going to be a first-round draft pick next year."

Still, Alexander said he understands the roots of players' excitement with their focus now on the Big 12 opener.

"Nebraska's the only team on our schedule, so we want to start our conference season ... off right," he said. "That's the reason why most people came here, to play in big games like this. We're looking forward to playing them on Thursday night."

Recalling great Huskers from the past inspires Weatherspoon as well.

"I grew up watching Nebraska," he said. "You know, (former Huskers) Tommy Frazier, Mike Rucker, Ahman Green. Great players come out of there, man. It's going to be a challenge, and a great day."

As evidenced by his strong game two years ago, Weatherspoon was already being called on as major defensive contributor, and remembers the effect the game had on spurring the Tigers to a 12-win season.

"It kind of set our tone," he said. "Maybe we weren't living up to the hype that everybody had for us. We had a big game against those guys and that helped us out. But you know, totally different team this year, man. That's a new Nebraska team. It's a new Mizzou team. So we just gotta go out there and see what happens this time."

Washington said there is plenty to gain from a strong performance against the Huskers.

"Any win against Nebraska is a big win for us," he said. "It's like one of our rivals behind Kansas. We're going to play with tremendous heart."

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