Inside Mizzou Viewer's Guide: Mizzou-Nebraska

Gary Pinkel usually isn't much for publicly issuing rah-rah type of statements – it just doesn't seem to come naturally to the stone-faced Missouri head coach – but this week he issued a direct order to the fans for this weekend's showdown with Nebraska.


"We need everybody to wear gold," Pinkel said matter-of-factly. "You're not allowed to come in unless you've got gold on. And we expect you to stand up, and we've got to give you something to cheer about."

For the always businesslike Pinkel to open his press conference with a plea to the fans said something, though it's not as if we didn't already know it: this game is huge.

When Nebraska and Mizzou sprint onto Faurot Field Saturday night, it will mark what everyone in and around the MU football program expects to serve as culmination of years of planning, hoping and waiting. The Tigers (4-0), ranked 17th in the nation, can take the next step in their progression toward the top of the Big 12 conference with a win on national TV against the hated Cornhuskers (4-1, No. 25). The winner claims the inside track toward the Big 12 North championship.

"I've been thinking about this game since last year the Nebraska game. That game definitely left a bad taste in our mouth because it was one of those things where it could have been for the North title," MU tight end Martin Rucker said. "Plus, Nebraska is always a big game."

With so much attention focused on this game, there's been no lack of speculation about how it will unfold. Here's our take:

Mizzou Offense vs. Nebraska Defense
What can you say about MU's offense? Well, quite a bit actually. The Tigers are putting up the fifth-most yards per game in Division I football, armed with a balanced attack and a bevy of gifted playmakers: Chase Daniel is second in the conference in passing yards per game and total offense, tight end Martin Rucker is seventh in the Big 12 in receiving – and first in the nation among tight ends – and Will Franklin is ninth in the conference. And then there's Jeremy Maclin, the nation's most productive all-around player thus far, and Tony Temple, who averages 88.2 yards behind an excellent, powerful offensive line.
"They've got it all. They really have it all," said Nebraska defensive coordinator Phil Elmassian.

Elmassian's unit . Linebacker has been so-so at best. One player, senior linebacker Steve Octavien, ranks among the Big 12's top 13 tacklers – compared to four players for Mizzou. Linebacker Bo Ruud has great range but will face the stiff task of chasing Rucker and Chase Coffman (18 catches, 164 yds, 2 TDs) all over the field. Nebraska contained elusive Iowa State quarterback Bret Meyers last week and sacked him three times, but prior to that the pass rush had been virtually non-existent, posting three sacks in four games. MU's front line has protected Daniel quite well, as he's been tackled behind the line of scrimmage just five times in four games.

"Their line does a great job," Callahan said. "They do an excellent job of keeping you off balance with screens; whether it's a tunnel screen, a bubble screen, a jailbreak screen, bootleg movements, quick rolls, three-step type actions. It's pretty well thought-out conceptually. So he's not going to take a lot of hits or pass rush because they spread the field out. We hope to get some pressure on him. We're going to have to at some point."

Iowa State ran a whopping 102 plays last week against Nebraska's defense, including a 17-play, 97-yard touchdown drive. Nebraska struggled on third downs, which is suicide against a Tigers attack that converts an NCAA-best 57.1 percent of third downs. On the other hand, NU found a way to smother MU last year on third downs, holding the Tigers to a 23-percent conversion rate. Look for Daniel to go to his tight ends early and often when in need of clutch conversions.

"It's never good to have to go 102 plays, but we had to do it, and we did it, and we persevered through it," sophomore nose tackle Ndamukong Suh said. "We'll take it, and it's something to learn from … We shouldn't have been on the field. We had opportunities to get off the field, and we just didn't capitalize on those. We need to make sure we get that done this week."

Nebraska, which finally has senior corner Zack Bowman back 100 percent healthy, managed to thwart Missouri's offense as well as anyone a year ago, holding MU to six first-half points and intercepting Daniel twice on tipped passes.

Nebraska Offense vs. Mizzou Defense

Will Mizzou be able to stop the run consistently? Will The Tigers continue their opportunistic ways, after forcing 11 turnovers in four games? This could be the foremost key to the game, because if the Tigers get on top early and turn it into a shootout, it's difficult to envision NU emerging with a win.

It seems an automatic that MU will get its points – the Tigers haven't scored less than 38 points in any game, and has posted identical 41-24 wins in the last two meetings at Faurot Field, so holding Nebraska to a reasonable score – say, 28 points or so – could guarantee a victory. Nebraska's offense has been putting up a lot of points (35.8 per game). That number is inflated by big performances against Nevada and Ball State, though perhaps the same could be said about MU's opposition.

Still, there are questions aplenty about the NU offense. The Cornhuskers turned the ball over three times in the first quarter alone last week against Iowa State, and quarterback Sam Keller (121 for 185, 1497 yds, 9 TDs, 7 INTs) has seven interceptions to go along with his nine touchdown passes. Mizzou's pass defense has been up and down, nearly costing them the season opener against Illinois, when little-know backup quarterback Eddie McGee moved the ball threw the air with far too much ease. Mizzou has allowed the second most passing yards per game in the Big 12, and Pinkel this week promoted true freshman Carl Gettis to the starting lineup in place of sophomore Hardy Ricks. Iowa State never got to Keller last week, but Mizzou will put more pressure on him than any of NU's previous opponents. The NU O-line is far from the road-graders of past Nebraska squads, as the Huskers average a mediocre 4.1 yards per carry.
Keller is experienced and does a good job of spreading the ball around to several receivers, but fortunately, no gamebreaking pass-catcher has emerged and there doesn't appear to be a real deep threat. Oft-troubled Maurice Purify (19 catches, 268 yds, 1 TD) is the biggest natural threat, but has not re-earned his starting position. Nebraska has also been plagued by dropped passes.
The Huskers do have the conference's No. 1 rusher in Marlon Lucky (108 carries, 565 yds, 6 TDs).

Not only a great runner, but he's leading their team in receptions I believe, so they use him in a lot of ways. Very athletic and very quick," said Pinkel, who expects NU will try and pound Lucky up the middle early and often.

Still, keep in mind that nearly half of his yards came in Week one against Nevada. Since they ran for 413 yards in the opener against Nevada, the Huskers averaged just 115 yards on the ground, and nine of their 15 touchdowns have come on passes. Mizzou is allowing 4.2 yards per carry, second worst in the conference only to the Cornhuskers. Last year against Mizzou, NU posted 236 passing yards and another 183 on the ground. "We're working real hard on run defense as well as everything. That was the inexperienced side of our football team. Going in, we knew there would be growing pains. That being said, we've got to play better, and I expect us to do that," Pinkel said. "I don't think you're gonna stop them. Have to try to contain them as best you can." Mizzou's defense has tightened up when needed, though, holding opponents to 10 scores in 16 red zone trips, the second stingiest margin in the conference. Nebraska is in the middle of the pack in red zone scoring, but has shown excellent pass-run balance when inside the 20 yard-line.

Home-field advantage

Mizzou has won 21 of its past 27 home games, and has outscored its last nine opponents at ‘The Zou' by an average margin of 35.9 points to 15.3. Nebraska will face a ruckus crowd of 70,000-plus, Mizzou's first sellout since 2003, and the Huskers have had their problems in such environments in recent years. Nebraska prepared by pumping crowd noise over its PA system in practice this week, but there's no way to duplicate the raucous environment under the lights Saturday night. A win here would give the Tigers their first three-game home winning streak over NU in 46 years.
"I know it's not going to be the easiest atmosphere for any football team to go into, but no road game ever is," NU coach Bill Callahan said. "But we've got some good senior leaders who have played a lot of tough road games and been in some tough settings. ... I'm really confident in our players. We embrace those types of atmospheres because that's what college football is all about."

Mac-Attack

Mizzou redshirt freshman Jeremy Maclin is quickly stealing the nickname from Cardinals legend Mark McGwire. Maclin leads the nation in total yardage and has scored seven touchdowns in a variety of ways, including a couple of punt returns. It's been a sensational start for Maclin, who briefly considered playing for Nebraska as a high school senior.

"They were in my top five at one point. I talked to their coaches quite a bit," said Maclin, who eventually chose MU over Oklahoma because of the family atmosphere.
It's safe to say Callahan wishes he'd won that recruiting battle.

The Kicking Game

After a stellar 2006 season, during which he made 18 of 20 field goals and all of his extra points, MU kicker Jeff Wolfert has struggled a bit. He's missed four of nine field goal tries so far, but Pinkel doesn't seem worried.

"I believe in him. He missed a couple clutch ones, but he's good. Like a golfer, occasionally Tigers Woods' driver doesn't work very well. And then he gets it fixed," Pinkel said. "I expect him to do well and I believe in him." Nebraska, meanwhile, used a platoon at placekicker. Freshman Adi Kunalic handles kickoffs and long field goals, and will attempt to lessen Maclin's effect by booming the ball into the endzone. Freshman Alex Henery handles short field goals. The tandem is four-of-four so far.

Prediction
Call us homers, but we don't see this one being close. Missouri's offense is an embarrassment of riches, and it can embarrass opponents with ease. Nebraska won't be able to keep up on the scoreboard as Mizzou rolls to a 45-21 victory.

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