Taking joy in a rival's loss is one of the time-honored traditions in sports, one that translates from game to game and from country to country. Winning your own contest (especially if it is against a rival) usually tops another team's loss, but Missouri fans certainly got more than a chuckle out of a recent Nebraska outcome.
On Oct. 9, Tiger supporters got the best of both worlds. Before the Tigers kicked off for a late start in Baylor that became a 30-10 win, the Cornhuskers were suffering through the biggest loss in school history. The vaunted Blackshirt defense, which had playmakers and dominated the line of scrimmage for decades, was lit up by Texas Tech's pass-wacky offense to the tune of 70 points. The Huskers managed just 10 points of their own, firmly establishing the Huskers as rebuilding under new coach Bill Callahan.
Wait, 70 points? That's got to be a typo, right Tony Palmer?
"I never, never would have thought of that," Missouri‘s junior guard said. "Texas Tech definitely had some big playmakers make some big plays at the right time. They definitely capitalized on Nebraska's mistakes. We gotta do the same thing, basically."
Usually, facing a Nebraska defense is the last task a struggling offense wants to meet, but that could change. The Cornhuskers are respectable in some statistical categories (13th in the country in rushing defense, allowing 99.3 yards per game; linebacker Barrett Ruud leads the conference with 82 tackles; two Huskers are tied for the league lead in passes defended), but the dominance, the swagger is gone.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel disagrees.
"They put a lot of pressure on you and they come after you in many different ways," he said. "They do a good job of giving you, in most situations, several things that you have to be concerned about. That's very good design."
Good design or not, the numbers are not there to make this a quality Cornhusker defense. Thanks mostly to the Tech loss, the Huskers are 11th in the conference -- ahead only of lowly Baylor -- and 81st nationally in scoring defense, allowing 29.3 points per game.
Freshman TE Martin Rucker, whose brother Mike was an All-American defensive end for the Huskers in the mid-1990s, said he could not believe Nebraska allowed Tech to run up the score like the Red Raiders did.
"It surprised me a lot, it surprised a lot of people," Rucker said. "Typically, they don't give up a lot of points, typically they don't lose. It wasn't really all on the defense, but it was real surprising to put up 70 points against the Blackshirts."
This could be exactly what a struggling Tiger offense needs to rekindle the spark that allowed it to run up big numbers in the nonconference season. Conversely, a strong effort against the Tigers would help the Cornhuskers re-establish themselves as contenders in the Big 12. Either way, Missouri will look for its first win in Lincoln since 1978 without starting junior TB Damien Nash, whose suspension takes more than 100 yards out of the offense.
"They're still a Nebraska defense of old," Pinkel said. "They run to the ball well and, to the normal person, they would look at that and say they're every bit as good as they've ever been."
Ruud is the centerpiece of the unit. The senior averages 11.7 tackles per game and has contributed 2.5 sacks.
"He's a very dominant player," Pinkel said. "I'm tired of seeing him."
Ruud anchors the middle of the defense, but there are questions elsewhere. The pass defense has been brutal, allowing 238.3 yards per game. In an attempt to exploit this, opposing offenses have given the Huskers plenty of opportunities to make plays; safety Daniel Bullocks and cornerback Fabian Washington are in the top three in the league in interceptions, having recorded four and three picks, respectively.
"Every defense has some breakdowns," Pinkel said. "You try to look at any vulnerable areas. You try to look at what other teams did, how they get big plays. I don't think it's any unusual number as compared to the past. Certainly, we're going to try to exploit the weaknesses if we can, but they're obviously a very, very good defense."
Outside of the rivalry ramifications, the winner of Saturday's game will be in the driver's seat in first place of the Big 12 North. The winner will hold a two-game lead on the loser, since the first standings tiebreaker is the head-to-head matchup. Another loss would give the Tigers three defeats in a row and drop them to .500 on the season and 2-3 in league play.
"Every game is hugely important, and none more important that this one here," Pinkel said. "It's gonna take a great effort on our part."
The Tigers' task will be learning from the high-flying Texas Tech offense and taking advantage of the Cornhusker defense while it can. As of Monday, senior WR Thomson Omboga said he had yet to break down the game film of the Tech-Nebraska affair.
"I haven't seen it yet," Omboga said, "but I'm sure we'll be watching it very close."