LINCOLN, Neb. — Blaine Gabbert never gets woozy. Never.
Not in the third quarter, when he lay splayed just inches from the goal line after being denied the yard he needed for a touchdown. Not after Nebraska safety Courtney Osborne sacked him in the fourth quarter for a loss of 11 yards, when he crumpled to the ground and lay flat for what seemed like much longer than 10 or 15 seconds.
When he let the play clock run out and helplessly called for a timeout his team no longer had in the third quarter, Gabbert said he was still just fine. Absolutely fine.
“I’m never woozy,” Gabbert said. “No cobwebs.”
In Missouri’s first defeat of the season, a 31-17 loss to the Nebraska Cornhuskers, the Tigers saw a different quarterback than it had in its previous games. Faced with one of the best secondaries in the nation, the Missouri offense stagnated, and with so much coverage, Gabbert had to run the ball more than he has all season. The results, though far from impressive, showed the quarterback’s almost bullheaded refusal to accept the reality of defeat.
“You know, he did what he could with what we had,” tailback De’Vion Moore said.
On Saturday, the sidelines were Gabbert’s best friends. Even when he wasn’t facing pressure from the Nebraska defense, the quarterback often had no open receiver to throw to and had to rely on his own footwork.
“You’ve got to capitalize on an opportunity,” Gabbert said. “When they’re covering people and there’s nobody to throw to, you’ve got to take off.”
Nebraska defensive tackle Jared Crick said he and his teammates respected Gabbert’s feet and running ability, but Gabbert’s runs, 22 for a total of 74 yards, seemed more like scrambles than offensive progress. When he did manage to break through a hole in the defense, his focus was trained on reaching the sidelines, as if he hoped the thick white boundary lines could save him from injury. It was far from confidence-inspiring. Even so, his teammates defended his efforts and leadership on the field, no matter how shaky it appeared.
“He did a great job,” Moore said. “You know, he took control. He ran the ball. When you get in situations like that there, where pressure’s on you and you can get out and you can run, it’s great.”
Wide receiver T.J. Moe dutifully defended his quarterback’s refusal to give in — or even to admit to being in pain or flustered.
“He’s going to be out there swinging to the very end, and we’re right there with him,” Moe said. “Blaine’s a fighter.”
The Gabbert who spoke on Saturday was an exhausted fighter, a paler version of the quarterback who appeared after last week’s win over Oklahoma. Gone was the confident swagger, the smeared eye black and tousled hair. What remained was his smile, though it was more of an assertive grin, a don’t-dare-question-my-skills assertion. He was defensive, but he got to the point: His team expected the Cornhuskers’ talented defense, it just didn’t know what to do with it.
“They ran the same coverage the entire game,” Gabbert said. “We prepared for it. We’ve just got to make plays when the opportunity’s there.”
Opportunities were rare for Gabbert’s offense. The Nebraska defense ran a man-to-man pass coverage, and Moe said the receivers didn’t win the individual battles to get open. With no one to turn to, Gabbert could rely only on himself, and the Nebraska defense made every effort to confuse him.
“We mixed it up good to try and keep them off balance, try to give some different looks to Gabbert,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “We didn’t settle in on one thing the whole game.”
Moore said he and his teammates cannot blame the loss on a lack of preparation or expectations. Gabbert knew about the pressure, knew he might have to run, but expectation wasn’t enough.
“We have to come out stronger,” Gabbert said.