COLUMBIA — Two throws were enough to change not only the game, but Blaine Gabbert's place in it.
The moment Dejon Gomes snagged Gabbert's second interception in as many throws during Missouri's 27-12 loss to Nebraska, the headline had shifted.
"Gutsy quarterback pilots team to victory," became "Inexperienced quarterback makes costly mistakes."
The defense may have let up 27 fourth-quarter points, but it was late turnovers and short fields that did in the Tigers against Nebraska. But even as Gabbert appeared to crumble in the national spotlight, the swing in story line was more apparent than real.
Before Gabbert's misfire to Gomes, or to defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh before that, there were plenty of other mistakes and near disasters mixed in with the resolve he showed in playing hurt. From the moment that Gabbert stepped onto the field after rolling his ankle, to the time the last reporter finished questioning him after the game, he displayed both the intangible qualities necessary of a quarterback, and the inevitable pitfalls of inexperience.
When asked about the injury to his ankle after the game, Gabbert didn't hesitate.
Was there a discussion about whether he would come out of the game?
"No sir," Gabbert replied.
Gabbert tried to downplay the injury as best he could. He claimed that he didn't remember on what play he was hurt, even though it obvious that he reached for his right ankle after being sacked in the first quarter by Suh, who terrorized the Missouri backfield all night. He claimed that the injury didn't do much to affect him, even though from Gabbert's lack of burst on his 1-yard touchdown run to his noticeable limp to and from the sideline it was evident that he was in serious pain.
Gabbert's response was the standard one for a game where playing through pain is supposed to be commonplace and for a position expected to lead by example. But no amount of toughness can hide the fact that the injury played a role in the inefficiency of the Missouri offense.
The Tigers' longest pass play of the night went for 38 yards, even that was only completed because Jared Perry made a late adjustment on a severely under-thrown ball. For a quarterback who relies so heavily on the speed with which he can deliver the ball, not being able to push off his back foot creates a gap between the plays he could make and the plays he can make. And that gap can lead to throws like the one that was intercepted by Gomes, where a decision was made without a drop in velocity in mind.
To blame Gabbert's poor performance on injury, however, would be only telling part of the story. The fact that Gabbert's first interception didn't come until the fourth quarter was more a result of blind luck than sound offense. There were plenty of throws that had less to do with a bum ankle and more to do with bum decision-making. Throughout the game Cornhuskers defenders dropped several poorly thrown passes and managed to tip several more.
In the third quarter, Suh dropped back into coverage rather than rushing the quarterback, and Gabbert failed to notice the 305-pound tackle, throwing it directly into Suh's hands. Luckily for the Tigers, the defensive tackle was caught off-guard and the ball fell harmlessly to the turf.
Gabbert said that the defensive adjustment of dropping linemen back into coverage was nothing he wasn't ready for. Facing more complex defenses and players with the talent level that Suh possesses are simply part of his maturation process as a quarterback.
"It's part of the learning curve," Gabbert said. "Suh's a great player. You saw it tonight. He's an All-American."
Another part of that learning curve is making the right reads of the defense, a problem that Gabbert acknowledged on Suh's interception.
"You've got to read and react," Gabbert said. "I didn't really read or react there. I just went with my gut."
Just as important, however, is the part of the play that Gabbert didn't acknowledge. On quick passing plays, the offensive linemen are supposed to dive at the knees of the defensive linemen to create an open lane to throw the ball, something that didn't happen.
But despite the miscue, Gabbert took the blame on the play, and the loss overall.
"It was my two turnovers," Gabbert said when asked about the game's turning point. "Those were two plays that gave them 14 points."
Gabbert wasn't going to go an entire season without throwing an interception, a fact he acknowledged after the game. Sophomore quarterbacks throw interceptions. And while Gabbert's inexperience will undoubtedly lead to more growing pains throughout Missouri's Big 12 schedule, that youthfulness also comes with the maturity of accountability.
"I just have to be more responsible with the football," Gabbert said. "That can't happen."