October 9, 2009

Fourth quarter rally lifts Huskers to 27-12 win

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COLUMBIA, Mo. - It couldn't have been any stranger, and it couldn't have had a more perfect ending.

In a game that had a 12-minute stadium blackout and so much rain that flashflood warnings were popping up across the area, Nebraska overcame three quarters of dismal play offensively and on special teams by putting together a 27-point explosion in the fourth quarter to beat rival Missouri 27-12 Thursday night.

Junior quarterback Zac Lee bounced back from what started as the worst game of his career by tossing three straight touchdowns, while junior running back Roy Helu added another.

The game marked the first time Nebraska had defeated Missouri on the road since 2001.

"We talked about it at halftime," head coach Bo Pelini said. "We said before we walked out there on the field in the second half, we said, 'We will not walk out of here without a win.' And you know, we kept fighting. You can get down in situations like that, when things aren't going your way and it's pretty easy to feel sorry for yourself and let the game get away from you.

"We never let the game get away from us, and we gave ourselves an opportunity to make a couple plays and we came out with a win."

Trailing 12-0 heading into the fourth quarter, Nebraska's offense hadn't shown the least bit of life all night long. Through three quarters, the Huskers had managed just 109 yards of total offense on 50 plays and had barely even advanced the ball into Missouri territory.

On a third down-and-8 with 13:56 left in the game, however, that all changed.

Lee connected with junior Niles Paul on a deep post route over the middle for a 56-yard touchdown pass to cut the lead to 12-7. Then, on Missouri's first play on the ensuing possession, Tiger quarterback Blaine Gabbert threw his first interception of the season right into the hands of NU senior defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.

A few plays later, Lee found Paul for a second time, this time splitting a pair of Tiger defenders with a pass to the back of the end zone. A failed 2-point conversion left the score 13-12, but the Huskers' fourth quarter fury was far from over.

Junior cornerback Dejon Gomes kept the momentum going when he stepped in front of Gabbert's very next pass and took it down to the Missouri 10-yard line. Lee then capitalized for the third straight time when he hung in the pocket and lobbed a touchdown pass to wide open junior tight end Mike McNeill on a hesitation route.

Leading 20-12, the Huskers nearly let Missouri back in the game when the Tigers drove deep into NU territory with roughly 5 minutes to play. But the defense held firm and forced a turnover on downs to get the ball back with a chance to seal the victory.

Helu put the finishing touches on the game, as the Huskers used nothing but running plays on their final drive before finally punching in a 5-yard touchdown run by Helu to put an exclamation point of sorts on the win.

"This is a character win," offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said. "These conditions were so adverse - the rain, the weather. We had opportunities, and we either had a drop or maybe a missed ball because of ball conditions. But I couldn't be any more proud.

"I don't think ever - in the 28 years I've been doing this - had a greater win, because it was about character. It was about hanging in there and fighting it out until the very end. It's the most exciting, best win I've ever been a part of."

- Robin Washut

Coaches had faith Lee would pull through slow start

For three quarters, Zac Lee was the guy who simply couldn't get it done in the big games when it mattered the most.

Then came the fourth quarter on Thursday night.

It wasn't the prettiest comeback, and he certainly got more than his share of help from his defense the entire night, but it was the unwavering poise and confidence that Lee showed throughout that made his coaches trust him enough to leave him in the game.

However, it's not as if they didn't come within a split second from benching him in favor of freshman Cody Green.

"If you've ever been a quarterback and you've ever had to play in anything like this (weather), it's your worst nightmare," Watson said. "There was a time I was actually going to have him sit down and put Cody in and let (Zac) look at it a little bit. But he's just got such great character. I thought about it for about a half a second, and then I said, 'Nah, I'm going to leave this kid in there because I believe in him.' And he did an excellent job. He's such a great competitor that he just kept fighting his way through it."

Watson said Lee never panicked or showed too much frustration during the rough stretch, which was the biggest reason he decided to keep him in the game.

Because he works from the skybox, Watson said he asked receivers coach Ted Gilmore and Green to monitor how Lee was handling the situation, and both said he was doing fine and to leave him in the game.

That was all the convincing Watson needed.

"He was calm the whole time," Watson said. "I always have Ted there. Cody's also a great barometer for me, and those guys said, 'No coach, he's great. He knows what's going on.' In these conditions, you guys know, that's tough. Look at it out there, that's unbelievable. That's hard if you're a quarterback.

"During a series, (he and Lee) talked about one thing - I said, 'Hey brother, you've got to persevere. You've got to hang tough and you've got to find a way to win this game. It doesn't have to be pretty. We've just got to win it.' And he did it."

- Robin Washut

Suh shines under the spotlight

There's little question who those 26 NFL scouts came to Thursday night's game to see.

With the eyes of numerous potential employers focused on him, Ndamuking Suh put on one of the best performances of his career.

Despite facing double teams much of the game, he ended with six tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and a game-changing interception that set up the go-ahead touchdown.

When he wasn't getting to the ball or ball carriers, Suh was putting serious heat on Gabbert and flushing him out of the pocket.

"Suh played his you-know-what off," Pelini said.

Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini went on to call Suh's night the best individual performances he'd ever seen.

Already a projected high first-round pick, Suh probably didn't dramatically raise his draft stock all that much with his play against Missouri.

Really, the only thing he could have done was further verify his billing as the best defensive player in college football, and that's exactly what he did.

Slow start still a concern

Offensively, things couldn't have started much worse for Nebraska.

Along with a dismal running game and an 8-of-22 passing performance from Lee, the Huskers also shot themselves in the foot countless times with penalties, turnovers and special teams errors.

Nebraska committed 12 penalties for 108 yards, fumbled five times (losing two), and was unable to move the ball past Missouri's 30-yard line the entire game without the help of a turnover from the defense.

Special teams were even worse. Junior kicker/punter Alex Henery couldn't get a decent snap, and one cost NU two points after a high snap forced him to run in the back of the end zone before tossing the ball backwards for a safety.

Of those five fumbles, three came on mishandled punt returns.

Despite their woeful play on offense, the defense was able to keep the game close. Even after Gabbert connected with Jared Perry on a 38-yard bomb to Nebraska's 5-yardline, the Huskers held firm and forced a fourth-and-goal from the 1 with 2 seconds remaining.

Rather than kick the field goal, Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel opted to go for the touchdown. The risk paid off, as Gabbert ran a zone read option off right tackle into the end zone to send the Tigers into halftime with a 9-0 lead.

The Tigers added a 33-yard field goal late in the third quarter to bump their lead up to 12-0, and it looked like that might be more than enough to seal the victory.

Obviously things worked out for the Huskers in the end, but it wasn't as if their play through the first three quarters didn't leave a somewhat bitter taste on an otherwise sweet victory.

"Well you know, we made some plays in the fourth quarter," Pelini said. "We had the opportunities before that. We didn't make all those plays, and you know, they made the plays early. Conditions like that, sometimes you have to take advantage of your opportunities. We didn't take advantage of them in the first half, but we were able to get that done in the fourth quarter.

- Robin Washut

Quick hits

***Watson said he decided to sit Paul for the first series of the second half to send a message to the wide out that the team needed a better effort from him if they were going to win the game. Judging from his two touchdowns, Paul got the message loud and clear.

"We needed to get his attention," Watson said. "Just let him settle down a little bit. And he did. He came back and he, like Zac, had an awesome game. You've got to be a tough dude to hang in there like that… We were going to put him back in. He's too good of player."

***Henery said the problems he was having getting punts off was due to bad snaps and him not getting a good enough kick on the ball.

"I don't really know what happened," Henery said. "The snaps pulled me right and I couldn't get back across. It was a little difficult with it being so wet because you really have to get your foot behind the ball."

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