Missouri and Nebraska are heading in to Saturday’s 11 a.m. game with the same thing at stake: the Big 12 Conference North division title and all that comes with it.
With so much in common, it would be easy to think both teams are approaching the game in the same way. It would be a mistake, though.
Missouri is continuing with its season-long approach of it being the only game and having the same importance as every game on the schedule.
“(Coach Gary Pinkel) said don’t worry that it’s on ABC; don’t worry that it’s an 11 o’clock game. Don’t worry that this is the Big 12 North title game,” quarterback Chase Daniel said. “Let media and everyone outside this program think what it is, but to us, it’s the next game, and he’s exactly right, and everyone is buying into it. Everyone’s buying into it. It’s a big game because it’s the next game, and that’s what we’ve been saying all year.”
The Tigers again are focusing on themselves and what they need to accomplish rather than what the ’Huskers are doing. The new starter at running back, Earl Goldsmith, isn’t too worried about Nebraska’s Blackshirt defense.
“Nebraska is a good team. We are not taking anything away from them,” he said. “But right now, we aren’t worried about Nebraska. We are worried about what the Missouri Tigers got to get done.”
Meanwhile, Nebraska is taking a completely different approach. Nebraska coach Bill Callahan explained the process the ’Huskers use, one that would give one-game-at-a-time Pinkel a coronary.
“Our players are very well aware of the whole scenario involving the race,” Callahan said. “They have been since Big 12 Conference play has begun. We point that out every week when we get together after our Sunday review. We show them exactly where everybody’s at, we give them the schedule for the week, who’s playing who, what significance it can have and what impact it can have on our particular place in the division or where we’re headed in the race overall.”
Nebraska’s focus is on winning the Big 12 North rather than winning this particular game.
“That’s the first goal,” Callahan said. “You can’t do anything or go anywhere until you reach that goal. That’s a focus that we’ve had all along as a team.”
Missouri tight end Martin Rucker sees that approach as a problem because it can be a distraction for the players.
“You can’t worry about (winning the North) because then you will start looking ahead,” Rucker said. “I think it just brings emotion into the game. It causes a lack of focus.”
The game will be the loudest environment the Tigers have played in this season. The Texas A&M game was loud, but the passion of a recently renewed rivalry was missing.
Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb., holds more people than any city in the state other than Omaha and has hosted sold out crowds since 1962, an NCAA record. Just more than 81,000 people pack the stadium decked out in red, creating an imposing environment for visiting teams.
“It’s one of those things you go out and play,” Missouri middle linebacker Dedrick Harrington said. “Everybody talks about the big sea of red, but it’s just one of those things you have to block out and just play.”
The Tigers haven’t won at Nebraska since 1978, a streak that coaches and players attribute to the passion of the fans.
“We’re raised to be ’Huskers here,” Joseph Haggins, a fan who lives in Omaha, said. “My dad and grandpa have been taking me to games since I can remember. We’d get dressed up in our overalls before the sun came up and were hoarse by the end of the day. It’s a way of life, not just something to do on a Saturday afternoon.”
Nebraska players say they feed off the energy the home crowd provides.
“Going to Oklahoma State and being in a game like that, you sit there and think about how nice it would be to be in front of all your fans, especially Nebraska fans,” Nebraska linebacker Corey McKeon said. “They’re incredible. Sometimes, it’s fun to go on the road because it’s a little different. It’s a shake-up, but you get out there and after seeing the stadium and everything, about two minutes into the game, you wish you were at Memorial Stadium in front of all the great fans. You miss it. There’s no better place to play, and you realize that going on the road.”
KICKING IT UP A NOTCH: Missouri place-kicker Jeff Wolfert, who gave up a diving scholarship to pursue his football dreams, was named a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award on Thursday.
Wolfert is one of 20 kickers from across the country in the race for the award given at the end of the season to the nation’s best kicker. This season, Wolfert is 11-of-13 in field goals and is a perfect 34-of-34 on extra points. His last miss was a 36-yarder in the Sept. 6 game against Ole Miss.
Also in the running for the award this year is the 2005 Groza winner, Alexis Serna of Oregon State, and 2005 runner-up Mason Crosby of Colorado.