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October 3, 2008
Mizzou focused on present, not bad history
Thirty years of bad history rubs Missouri in the face, and Chase Daniel knows it. But there's so much more on the line for the Tigers and their star quarterback Saturday night in Lincoln than getting the school's first win at Nebraska since 1978.
Daniel is thinking championships a Big 12 banner, a national-title ring. So far, so good for the Tigers (4-0), who were off last week. The next obstacle is Nebraska and expunging Missouri's pungent history in the Cornhusker State. Daniel knows undoing history and keeping Missouri's BCS hopes alive are on the line and he also knows nine top-25 teams lost last week, including six to unranked opponents.
"I talked to (USC's) Mark (Sanchez) and I talked to (Georgia's) Matt Stafford, and just asked them 'How does it feel?' " said Daniel, who leads the No. 2 total offense (595.5 ypg) and No. 2 scoring offense (53.8 ppg) in the nation. "They said, 'It's the worst feeling in the world; we don't want to feel this ever again. Don't let your team do it.' So I can promise I'm not going to let our team have a letdown."
Daniel has a history of delivering. Last season, Missouri went to Colorado where it hadn't won since 1997 and thumped the Buffaloes 55-10. Later in the season, the Tigers beat Kansas State, where they had been winless since 1989. And on it went, all the way to Daniel engineering the school's first Big 12 North title and the first New Year's Day bowl win since 1966.
Next up is ending a skid of 15 consecutive defeats at Nebraska, a program in rebuilding mode with first-year coach Bo Pelini. This one should be a piece of cake for Mizzou, right? This is a chance for a little role reversal in a series that has seen Nebraska lambaste the Tigers by scores of 69-21, 63-6, 57-0, 50-7 and 51-7 in the past 20 years, correct? Or is Missouri going to be another marquee team to be ambushed?
"It's the fear that every coach has," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. "Some good coaches got beat this week, and I'm sure they were getting the message out to their players. It's all about respect and preparation. If you cheat either one of those, you won't play your best."
Nebraska is looking for a better effort than it got in last week's 35-30 home loss to Virginia Tech, the Huskers' first defeat of the season. But is Nebraska, which hasn't won the Big 12 since 1999 and missed the postseason twice in the past four years, ready for Missouri?
"They're good across the board," Pelini said. "They have a good running game, they have a good passing game. Obviously it starts with the quarterback, and then you throw in (wide receiver Jeremy) Maclin. They've got a number of good football players that can hurt you. You can't just focus on stopping one guy; you'll get killed. It's got to be a team effort."
The Tigers haven't missed TB Tony Temple. Derrick Washington has stepped in and run with power and a burst (361 yards and eight touchdowns) in Missouri's one-back set. Helping Washington's cause has been the development of a line that entered the season with questions. No more. Mizzou is averaging 191.3 rushing yards. The Huskers have a strong line led by end Zach Potter and NT Ndamukong Suh, but there's a lack of depth. That could be trouble against Missouri's no-huddle offense. It's vital RB-turned-LB Cody Glenn has a big game.
Cover your eyes, Herby Husker. This could get ugly. Mizzou QB Chase Daniel arguably is college football's biggest star, a Heisman front-runner with golden-boy looks and gaudy statistics. Daniel has completed 75.9 percent of his passes (101-of-133) for 1,412 yards with 12 touchdowns and one interception. He has to be salivating to face this secondary, which struggled to cover Virginia Tech's pedestrian passing attack. The Hokies completed only nine passes, but they went for an average of 19 yards. How is Nebraska's spotty secondary going to cover WR Jeremy Maclin, who has 26 receptions for 391 yards and four touchdowns? And don't forget about TE Chase Coffman, who has 28 grabs for 379 yards and three scores. Throw in Jared Perry and Tommy Saunders and, well, the heads of Nebraska's defensive backs will be on swivels.
No one will confuse this edition of the Huskers with the road-grading units of the Tom Osborne era. Pelini is trying, but the results haven't been there. Marlon Lucky is a versatile back who can run and catch. But Nebraska ran for just 55 yards and was only 2-for-11 on third downs against Virginia Tech. Missouri's defense is aggressive, featuring a lot of movement and blitzing along the front seven. It's a good way to make plays but also a good way to yield big plays. Keep an eye on Missouri LB Sean Weatherspoon, an active playmaker who has three interceptions and returned two for touchdowns this season. He also is the Big 12's top tackler. Can Nebraska make the Tigers pay for their aggressive tendencies?
Missouri will get a big boost from the return of star free safety William Moore, who missed the last game with a foot injury. Still, the Tigers could struggle to stop Nebraska's strong passing attack. Huskers QB Joe Ganz is an underrated marksman who is capable of exploiting a Missouri defense that ranks last in the Big 12 against the pass (279.5 ypg). Ganz is completing passes at a 64.4 percent clip (67-of-104). He has thrown for 997 yards, with seven touchdowns and four picks. Ganz has capable targets in WR Nate Swift and TE Mike McNeill. Ganz will thrive unless Missouri can pressure him. That means DE Stryker Sulak needs to make some plays.
Lots of playmakers here, so don't leave your seat when someone is kicking. Nebraska will do what it can to avoid kicking to Maclin. He ranks second in the Big 12 in kickoff returns, averaging 31 yards - with one touchdown - on seven runbacks. Maclin also is averaging 10.3 yards on 12 punt returns. Factor in his running and receiving skills, and it's no wonder Maclin paces the Big 12 in all-purpose yards (193.5 ypg). Mizzou needs to watch Niles Paul, who averages 25.8 yards on kickoff returns and has taken one back for a touchdown. Swift ran back a punt for a touchdown last week. Missouri's Jeff Wolfert is one of the nation's best kickers. He has made 90 consecutive kicks (26 field goals and 64 extra points) in Big 12 play. The Huskers' Alex Henery lacks Wolfert's resume, but he has hit six of seven field-goal attempts.
Missouri's staff has been a beacon of consistency. In eight years in Columbia, coach Gary Pinkel has had no staff turnover amazing in this transient and pressure-filled profession. The cornerstones are offensive coordinator Dave Christensen and defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus. Quarterback coach Dave Yost also is a special talent. Pelini's biggest move was retaining offensive coordinator Shawn Watson, who excels at game-planning. Pelini also injected a big dose of Huskers heritage by hiring Ron Brown, Barney Cotton and Marvin Sanders, who all previously coached in Lincoln.
If the Tigers run effectively, they win. Lost amid the hubbub over Daniel and the Mizzou aerial circus is that Tigers rank fourth in the Big 12 in rushing. Missouri's backs take advantage of defenses' preoccupation with stopping the pass, dashing and gashing foes that are spread horizontally across the field by the Missouri formations.
Just like Missouri, the Huskers have to be able to run the ball. This will do two things: 1. Keep the ball away from Daniel. 2. Shorten the game. It's also vital for Nebraska to get a lead, which would allow it to continue to run, drain the clock and keep Daniel on the bench for extended stretches.
Nebraska's only chance to pull a stunning upset will be to pressure Daniel. The problem? That's extremely difficult to do. He has been sacked only twice this season. Daniel sets up deep in the shotgun formation and has one of the quickest releases in the game. If Daniel is allowed to work unfettered, he'll slice apart a Huskers defense that ranks 97th in the nation against the pass and 64th overall.
Olin Buchanan: Missouri 34, Nebraska 17
Tom Dienhart is a senior national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.