There will be one team atop the Big 12 Conference North Division after Saturday’s game between Missouri and Nebraska.
Neither the Tigers (4-3, 2-2) nor the Cornhuskers (4-3, 2-2) have looked eager to take the lead. Both teams lost last week, and Saturday’s game in Lincoln, Neb. might be the last chance for the teams to control their destiny.
The Tigers are looking to end a two-game losing streak that included a 28-20 loss at Texas and a crushing 20-17 loss to Oklahoma State. Missouri led the Cowboys 17-0 and went into halftime with a 10-point lead. The second half featured breakdowns on offense and defense that allowed the Cowboys to win the game.
“There’s reasons why you win and there’s reasons why you lose football games,” MU coach Gary Pinkel said. “We did not play well on defense or offense in the second half of that game, and I’m responsible for it.”
The Cornhuskers squandered a chance to capitalize on Missouri’s loss. Kansas State led from start to finish in a 45-21 victory. The win was Kansas State’s first conference victory.
Coach Bill Callahan is in his first year at Nebraska after spending two years in the NFL coaching the Oakland Raiders. In 2002, the Raiders won the AFC championship, but lost in Super Bowl XXXVII to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Nebraska has traditionally featured a running offense, but
Callahan implemented the West Coast offense this season. That style typically looks to open up the field and puts more emphasis on the passing game, though Callahan said he does not want to overuse the pass.
“It’s not a pass-happy offense, although it has the capability of being flexible either to the run perspective or the pass perspective,” he said. “We always try to achieve balance with what we’re trying to accomplish here.”
The Cornhuskers might have to rely on their running game for success this weekend against the No. 3 pass defense in the nation. Missouri has made it difficult for opponents to move the ball through the air this season and leads the Big 12, allowing 146.1 passing yards per game.
Although the offense is known for opening up the pass, Pinkel said that Callahan has a lot of experience with the scheme and the Tigers should expect a balanced attack.
“People think the West Coast offense is just throwing the football all over the field,” Pinkel said. “But it’s spreading people out and creating running lanes. Obviously (Callahan) knows it very well. He’s very good at it, and it’s an exceptional scheme.”
Offensively, Missouri looks to rebound from a poor second-half performance against Oklahoma State. The Tigers amassed 87 yards of total offense and five first downs. Quarterback Brad Smith had a season-low 96 yards passing in the game, 31 in the second half.
Improving on that performance will not be easy without tailback Damien Nash, who leads the Tigers in carries (128), rushing yards (610) and touchdowns scored (eight). Pinkel suspended Nash indefinitely for “disciplinary reasons” earlier this week.
Marcus Woods, the Tigers’ third-leading rusher, will get his second start of the season, and true freshman Tony Temple will see his first collegiate playing time.
Missouri faces a Nebraska defense that is not as strong as it has been but still has some players with big-play ability.
Linebacker Barret Ruud leads the Cornhuskers’ defense with 92 tackles this season, including a career-high 19 against Kansas State. The senior is the career leader in tackles (381) at Nebraska and last year had a school-high 149.
“Ruud, their middle linebacker, is a great player,” Pinkel said. “He’s a very dominant player. I’ve seen him the last couple years and I’m tired of seeing him.”