COLUMBIA, Mo. - Nebraska was playing a non-descript football game, beating a non-descript Missouri squad. But not by much. And not with the flair one might expect from the nation's fourth-ranked team.
Then, in a flash of brilliant improvisation, Eric Crouch injected color into the picture. Suddenly, the Huskers' red uniform pants became a sparkling scarlet. The blue sky became azure.
Crouch raced 95 yards for a third-quarter touchdown, 15,000 Husker fans at Faurot Field roared to life, and Missouri's followers - along with the Tigers themselves - faded quietly into the background.
"It could have been the old knife-in-the-heart type thing," said Crouch, Nebraska's fleet quarterback. "The game wasn't totally in control at that time."
But after Crouch's dash, everything was right in Nebraska's gridiron world. Order was restored. Crouch turned a broken play - a third-down play - into the longest run from scrimmage in school history. The Huskers went up by 19 points on the historical sprint, and they added two fourth-quarter scores for a 36-3 triumph to improve to 5-0.
Crouch, in short, turned an otherwise forgettable afternoon into one fans will talk about for years.
"Eric never ceases to amaze me," Nebraska tight end Tracey Wistrom said. "I think everyone in the crowd felt like that, too."
Said Crouch: "I kind of amazed myself in a lot of ways."
The 6-foot-1, 200-pound senior wreaked nearly as much havoc on the school's record books as he did on Missouri (1-2). In gaining 191 yards on 17 carries, Crouch eclipsed the regular-season single-game school rushing record for a quarterback.
In addition, Crouch's career-best 311 yards of total offense placed him fourth on Nebraska's all-time single-game list, eight yards shy of quarterback Jerry Tagge's big day against the Tigers in 1971.
"Today would have to rank up there with one of Eric's best performances," said Coach Frank Solich, whose Huskers racked up a season-best 532 yards.
Nebraska, playing its Big 12 opener, also sparkled defensively, holding Missouri to a first-quarter field goal. The Tigers, using mostly short passes, gained 108 yards during the first 15 minutes but finished with only 205, including a meager 67 on the ground.
Strongside linebacker Scott Shanle, a junior from St. Edward, led the Huskers with eight tackles and three pass breakups.
"By the middle of the second quarter, I thought the defense had things under control," said Nebraska defensive coordinator Craig Bohl, whose unit hasn't allowed a touchdown in the last nine quarters of play.
Missouri surprised Bohl when it opened the game with quarterback Kirk Farmer, who had been listed as questionable with a sprained knee ligament. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound junior riddled Nebraska with 297 yards of total offense in a 42-24 loss last season that stuck in Bohl's craw - until Saturday.
This time, Farmer was generally harmless, throwing for 128 yards and rushing for 15.
"Early in the game, he did good things," Missouri first-year coach Gary Pinkel said. "He's rusty, very rusty. He's only practiced 10 days all season. And Nebraska wears on you. They get to you. They have as good a defense as there is in the country."
Said Bohl: "We made sure, as a coaching staff, that our guys were on edge this week. We practiced well."
Even so, Nebraska, a 24-point favorite, was having difficulty putting away a Missouri team that had opened the season with a home loss to Bowling Green. Saturday, however, a crowd of 64,204 watched Missouri stay in striking distance deep into the third quarter.
Then came Crouch's knockout punch, a crushing blow that was as unexpected as it was brilliant.
Nebraska, leading 16-3, faced third down and eight at its 5-yard line with 2 1/2 minutes left in the third quarter. Crouch dropped back to pass, his feet dancing in his own end zone. He looked to his left for split end Wilson Thomas.
Defensive end Nick Tarpoff charged toward Crouch and swiped at his him, but Crouch eluded him. Crouch dodged another defender at about the 10, and the race was on.
"I thought, 'Well, he's got 10 yards, now he's got 20 yards . . . Once he got into the clear, it was pretty obvious he wasn't going to get caught," Solich said.
"That was just a phenomenal play," Missouri lineman Keith Wright said. "He's got the talent, and he pulled himself out of a situation."
In doing so, Crouch propelled Nebraska to its 23rd straight win against Missouri. But Saturday's triumph didn't come as easily as the final score indicated.
Nebraska started slowly, turning over the ball twice during its scoreless first quarter. Missouri drew first blood when Brad Hammerich's 28-yard field goal capped a 13-play, 70-yard march. The Tigers ran 29 plays in the first quarter, the Huskers just 15.
"Early on, things were shaky," Shanle said. "It's a credit to their scheme."
Nebraska took the lead on I-back Dahrran Diedrick's 1-yard touchdown run with 10 1/2 minutes left in the second quarter. His burst capped a 14-play, 73-yard march during which fullback Judd Davies made a key reception on third-and-9 and a key block on third-and-7.
Until Crouch's 95-yard run, Nebraska's biggest play had been Thomas' 37-yard reception with about 40 seconds left before halftime. The 6-foot-6 Thomas leaped and reached over 5-foot-10 Antoine Duncan to make the grab. On the next play, Diedrick ran it in from the 4, giving the Huskers some breathing room.
"Wilson was fairly well covered," Solich said. "He just went up and took the ball away."
Nebraska increased the margin to 16-3 on Josh Brown's 38-yard field goal with 5:40 left in the third quarter. The kick capped a 14-play, 54-yard march highlighted by Wistrom's 16-yard reception on third-and-16.
The Huskers tacked on two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, with Crouch scoring on a 15-yard run and backup QB Jammal Lord on a 1-yard plunge.
"I thought there were some tremendous individual efforts today, and I certainly thought Eric was at the top of the list," Solich said.
Solich also praised Missouri, which smelled upset until Crouch punched it square on the nose.
"They're a very good football team, a physical football team," Solich said. "I like the idea that our guys played four quarters of hard, tough football."
Reach Steven M. Sipple at 473-7440 or firstname.lastname@example.org.