COLUMBIA — It was like a heavyweight fight.
But not in the way these things sometimes are. This wasn't an epic battle between two great champions. This wasn't Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.
This was everything changing in a flash. This was one side standing one moment, and waking up on the canvas the next.
"It's like you get hit in the mouth once and you're kind of dazed," Tigers defensive lineman Jaron Baston said. "You get hit again, and the next thing you know you're knocked out. You don't realize it coming."
After three quarters of dominance by the Missouri defense, it took only two minutes and 58 seconds to put the Tigers down for the night. And among all the lessons that Missouri will try to take from its conference-opening 27-12 loss to Nebraska, one stands above the rest. Against quality competition when a team loses its focus, even for a moment, when it rains, it can pour.
When the fourth quarter began Nebraska quarterback Zac Lee had completed nine of his 27 pass attempts for a measly 79 yards. Roy Helu Jr., the centerpiece of the fearsome Nebraska running game, had carried the ball 11 times for just 25 yards. The Tigers' 12-point lead might as well have been five times that.
Both Baston and linebacker Andrew Gachkar said the unit was on cloud nine. Asked whether or not he thought the Tigers had rattled the Cornhuskers, Gachkar responded without hesitation.
"I think for the first three quarters we were in all their heads," Gachkar said.
Just after the fourth quarter began, it looked as if the Tigers were going to force yet another Nebraska punt. It was third-and-8 and the Cornhuskers had the ball on their own 44-yard line. Lee dropped back to pass. And as Missouri safety Jasper Simmons moved forward to defend a shorter route in the middle of the field, Nebraska wide receiver Niles Paul sprinted behind the Tigers' defense and hauled in an easy 56-yard touchdown pass.
Nebraska had finally broken through, but to Baston the play was still just a tiny crack in a previously impenetrable shell.
"Most definitely," said Baston about whether or not the team retained the confidence it brought into the quarter after the touchdown. "We were winning the game. There was no need to feel like, 'Oh here we go.'"
But sometimes a tiny crack is all something needs to shatter.
On the ensuing play Blaine Gabbert was intercepted by Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, and the Missouri defense trotted back onto the field with only 18 yards between the Cornhuskers and another touchdown. Two plays later Lee lobbed a pass into the end zone that managed to make its way between two Tiger defenders before being cradled by Paul for another score. A lead that felt like it was out of reach was gone.
"It's a tough feeling when you're out there playing great ball for three quarters, putting up nice numbers, best we've been playing this year, and all of a sudden it goes away," linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said.
Another sequence of Missouri interception and Nebraska touchdown followed. By then it didn't feel like a surprise. Control had shifted, and it had shifted faster than anyone on the Missouri sideline could have envisioned. And with that quickness comes the question.
How does a defense that looked unstoppable for 45 minutes fall apart in an instant?
The Missouri defense is just as imperfect as the individuals that constitute it.
As the people in the stands, in the pressbox and in front of their TV's felt the invincibility of the Missouri defense, so too did the people that form it. When dealing with human beings sometimes complacency is inescapable.
"We call it the human element," Gachkar said. "You look at the scoreboard and you're thinking, 'We got this game in the bag.' And obviously, we didn't."
As quick as Gachkar was to acknowledge the lapse in focus, he was even quicker in harping on the need to learn from it. Cornerback Trey Hobson agreed. The most important thing now is not that they made the mistakes. It's making sure they never happen again.
"When you're up like that in a big game on national television, we've just got to hold our water and stay focused the whole game," Hobson said. "We've got to stay focused the whole game. Never get comfortable. I think we learned our lesson."