The momentum at Memorial Stadium changed direction more quickly than a Brad Smith cutback Saturday night.
Missouri and Nebraska exchanged long drives and turnovers for most of the first half, creating nothing short of a roller-coaster ride for the teams and their fans.
The Cornhuskers’ opening drive stalled after six plays and they punted. The Tigers offense came out throwing the ball as it had not done to that point.
Quarterback Brad Smith attempted three consecutive passes, completing two for 22 yards, before tailback Zack Abron gained 1 yard. The new approach on offense seemed to spark the Tigers until Smith began a flurry of turnovers by both teams. Smith’s first came on an overthrow to Sean Coffey, when Daniel Bullocks intercepted and returned it to the Nebraska 42.
The deflated Tigers immediately gave up a big play when quarterback Jamaal Lord hit receiver Mark LeFlore with a screen pass for a 55-yard touchdown.
Missouri made some big plays early that helped change the tide of the game, coach Gary Pinkel said.
“We called some plays more aggressively,” Pinkel said. “I would suggest that we also executed better.”
Missouri salvaged nothing on offense on its next possession, but, with the rain coming down hard, Nebraska tailback Josh Davis tried to field Brock Harvey’s punt at the 4. The ball slipped through Davis’ hands and linebacker James Kinney recovered at the Nebraska 6. The Tigers instantly gained back the momentum.
After Smith threw an incomplete pass to tight end Victor Sesay, Abron bulled his way into the end zone, dragging two defenders.
On the ensuing kickoff, Mike Matheny kicked the ball almost straight up in the air. Pinkel called it a “bloop kick” and it worked. Nebraska receiver Jack O’Holleran fumbled and Nino Williams II again recovered for the Tigers at the Nebraska 30.
“We thought they might have trouble with it and it was raining pretty hard,” Pinkel said. “Turnovers are huge.”
The Tigers failed to convert the opportunity, though, when Nebraska linebacker Demorrio Williams intercepted Smith’s screen pass to Darius Outlaw with 4:41 to play in the first quarter.
With momentum back on its side, Nebraska marched down the field to the Missouri 44 before receiving a false star penalty. The Cornhuskers punted again before MU coach Gary Pinkel opened his bag of tricks.
On first down from the Nebraska 47, Smith handed the ball to Outlaw on an end-around. Instead of running, Outlaw, a converted quarterback, threw back across the field to Smith, who took it 47 yards for a touchdown.
Nebraska responded with another long drive before Kinney forced Horne to fumble and Williams recovered at the 12.
The Tigers put together another long drive, but couldn’t score. Missouri then forced another Cornhusker punt, but couldn’t muster a drive. Harvey’s 21-yard punt gave Nebraska the ball at midfield with 40 seconds to go in the half.
Lord hit Ross Pilkington for 27 yards, setting up a David Dyches 30-yard field goal to make it 14-10 at halftime.
Missouri’s ability to keep the game close at halftime paid off in the second.
“We knew we could play with those guys,” Coffey said. “I knew we had a chance and after we made those plays in the second half it was probably over.”