As the Boston Red Sox showed in St. Louis on Wednesday, some streaks are meant to be broken.
Missouri ended a ridiculously long drought against Nebraska last season, pulling off a 41-24 upset of the No. 10 Cornhuskers. The win was the Tigers' first against their scarlet-clad neighbors since 1978, but another streak still looms.
The 1978 win was the last time the Tigers won in Lincoln, where they will face the Cornhuskers on Saturday. There is always boatloads of emotion on the field when these two teams meet, but the intensity will be ratcheted up even more this weekend. The winner takes the lead in the Big 12 North; thanks to tiebreakers, a Missouri win would give the Tigers a stranglehold on the division.
Both teams have a lot to prove, to themselves and the opponent. The Cornhuskers want to show that last season's meeting was a fluke and that they are still a force to be reckoned with. The Tigers can begin to establish themselves as a top-notch program with wins over Nebraska and Kansas State the next two weeks. Those wins would set them up nicely to coast into the conference championship and a bowl game.
There is a lot on the line. How each club responds will go a long way in determining the rest of the season.
Both units have had their ups and downs this season; both are entrenched in a "down" time right now. The Missouri offense faltered in the second half against Oklahoma State last weekend, turning an early 17-0 lead into a crushing 20-17 loss. The Cornhuskers were slapped around by Kansas State's backup quarterback last week, resulting in a 45-21 Nebraska loss. The usually staunch Blackshirt defense is proving not as strong as in season's past.
Still, the unit has playmakers. Senior Barrett Ruud is one of the most physical linebackers in the country and will receive All-American consideration. According to Nebraska's statistics (which vary significantly from the Big 12's), Ruud has more than double the tackles of any of his teammates. He has recorded 92 stops, including 10 for loss, while fellow LB Stewart Bradley is second with just 43. No matter which stats you look at, Ruud is an impact player. He anchors the defense at the middle linebacker position and makes plays all over the field.
Although just a sophomore, Bradley is another top performer. His 43 tackles top everybody but Ruud, and he has chipped in four quarterback hurries to go with two pass breakups. Bradley and senior Ira Cooper, who backs up both Ruud and weakside LB Chad Sievers, will be making most of the plays that Ruud does not.
The line is large, but not too productive to this point. Tackle Le Kevin Smith has the honor of leading the line in tackles (with 27) and having one of the best names in college football. The interior players are struggling to record sacks, however; Smith and fellow tackle Titus Adams have combined for just half a sack thus far.
The pass-rushers off the end are large, athletic and go two-deep. Senior Bernard Thomas starts at right end and has recorded 2.5 sacks and 10 quarterback hurries. Junior Wali Muhammad gets a lot of playing time there as well, having recorded 2.5 sacks, an impressive 13 hurries and an interception.
Likewise, the more talented player at the other end may be the backup. Sophomore Jay Moore will start and leads the Huskers with three sacks, but sophomore Adam Carriker is a specimen. At 6-foot-6 and 275 pounds, Carriker is a player that few offensive tackles match up well against. He has recorded 17 tackles and two sacks.
The secondary has been burned often this season -- most notably by Texas Tech, which racked up 70 points -- but there is talent there. Identical twins Josh and Daniel Bullocks anchor the safety positions, with strong safety Daniel having the better season thus far. He has recorded four interceptions, to go with 156 return yards, to lead the team. Josh has also had a strong season, leading the secondary with 35 stops.
CB Fabian Washington is a talented player that will likely matchup with Missouri WR Sean Coffey. All four corners on the two-deep are shorter than 6-feet, but Washington and senior Kellen Huston, who split time at left corner, are as athletic as they come.
Nebraska uses a base 4-3 defense.
After switching to an un-Nebraska-like pass-heavy offense under new coach Bill Callahan, the Huskers have had moderate success. They still run the ball better than they pass it, however; the Huskers rank sixth in the Big 12 (30th nationally) with 181.9 rushing yards per game, compared to seventh in the conference (70th nationally) with 200.3 passing yards per contest. Callahan is trying to open up the offense as much as possible, but he does not have the talent to develop consistency yet.
Sophomore Joe Dailey was a huge question mark before the season, but he has been acceptable so far. He has completed 94-of-184 passes for 1,390 yards, but he has 13 interceptions to go with 14 touchdowns. He is more efficient (barely) than Missouri's Brad Smith, but Dailey has yet to gain the total confidence of the Husker faithful. He was originally recruited to run the option, which means he can move around the pocket. He has rushed 34 times for 59 yards, including a long of 76, and three touchdowns.
Junior Cory Ross is the leader at IBack and has fared well, rushing for 617 yards on 128 carries, a 4.8-yard average. He has score just three rushing touchdowns; true freshman Brandon Jackson has crossed the goal line four times. At 5-foot-6 and 195 pounds, Ross cannot take too much punishment, opening the door for Jackson and redshirt freshman Tierre Green, who combine to average 86 rushing yards per game to complement Green's 88. Junior David Horne, who torched the Tigers for 119 yards this season, has all but disappeared from the Huskers' plans. Ross is third on the team with 14 receptions and 231 yards, to go with two touchdown catches.
Callahan's lack of top-notch threats at receiver hurts the offense the most. Junior TE Matt Herian has been the main beneficiary of the new offense; he leads the team with 23 catches, 302 yards and three scores. Junior WR Ross Pilkington, with 20 catches, 266 yards and one touchdown, is the other go-to guy. After him, there is talent, but little production. Grant Mulkey has caught 12 passes for 167 yards and two scores, while starting WR Mark LeFlore has caught 11 for 162 yards and one touchdown.
As always, the offensive line is large and athletic, but it has struggled to adapt to Callahan's new system. All-American candidate Richie Incognito left the team, but there is plenty of beef to take his place. Four of the line's starters are at least 6-foot-3, and all are at least 280 pounds. Seniors Mike Erickson and Jake Andersen are the most experienced members of the line, while sophomore Kurt Mann took Incognito's place at center.
Nebraska runs a West Coast offense and has opened the game in a pro-set formation the past few weeks, employing two receivers, a tight end and a fullback in its base set.
Senior K Sandro DeAngelis held on to the starting job after a spirited competition with sophomore David Dyches. DeAngelis has struggled, converting just 3-of-6 attempts, with all three misses from beyond 40 yards. Dyches may get the nod on long kicks; he has attempted just one field goal this season, converting from 46 yards.
Jackson and Green share the kick return duties and both have had moderate success. Freshman Santino Panico the primary punt returner, but he has yet to have a return of more than nine yards.
With Homecoming on the slate, the Cornhuskers get the nod. Despite its recent struggles, Nebraska is still Nebraska and still plays in front of more than 73,000 rabid fans each home game. While the Cornhuskers may be on the decline, the Tigers have yet to prove they have the ability to rise.
Last season's win against Nebraska was both thrilling and shocking, as the Tigers used a handful of trick plays to get into the game, and then allowed Smith to run all over the Huskers. Smith has been reined in by the coaching staff, although that might have to change this week. Without starting TB Damien Nash, the Tigers will be limited in what they can do on the ground. If Smith is allowed a little creativity, the Tigers could tally another big win.
That probably will not happen, so the Cornhuskers get the nod.