Nebraska's defense swarmed the Tigers in the second half, stifling any offensive rhythm and limiting Missouri to 28 total yards in the final two quarters.
"We were not executing on offense and that was one of the first times this year where we have done that," said Missouri Coach Gary Pinkel. "We were three-and-out, three-and-out, three-and-out. To be honest with you, we didn't react to that very well. We had some dropped balls and there were some breakdowns in protection and some bad throws.
"That was certainly a very awful half of offense for us and an exceptional half of defense from them."
Through the first half, freshman quarterback Brad Smith was able to execute the Tiger offense efficiently. He threw for 99 yards and he and running back Zack Abron combined for 93 yards rushing. Despite that success, Missouri twice had to settle for field goals in taking a 13-7 lead and trailed by just a point at halftime.
"Brad struggled a bit today and got a little frustrated. That's normal for every level of football. It's part of him maturing," said Pinkel. "Actually, the first half, I would suggest that they did contain him as a runner, yes. But we thought that would open up some throwing opportunities and we were pretty balanced.
"We just really struggled in the second half. We had some guys open and missed some throws and had some drops. I think you certainly give them (the Huskers) credit for that."
Smith, who has already tied the Missouri freshman rushing record in just six games with 641 yards, said Nebraska didn't do anything different than what the Tigers expected.
"They just played a great game on defense. They stopped our offense. It seemed like they had guys everywhere," he said. "In the second half, we didn't make the adjustments we needed to and we needed to execute better. It might have been the way they blitzed or occupying the guys on the offensive line.
"The Nebraska defense, the whole team, gets credit for stopping our offense. The way they played today, they were great."
Missouri capitalized on the first break of the day after Brandon Barnes recovered a fumble on Nebraska's first offensive snap of the game. Four plays later, Abron ran in from the 1-yard line to score.
After Nebraska came back to tie the score, the Tigers raced down the field, highlighted by a 48-yard run by Abron and a 17-yard pass from Smith to Darius Outlaw. But Missouri couldn't convert after a first down at the 2. Abron picked up a yard, then Smith missed on a pass to Ben Fredrickson before NU's DeJuan Groce and Fabian Washington stacked up Abron for a 4-yard loss. Michael Matheny came on for a 22-yard field goal.
"I realized there was another receiver open. That was a mistake on my part," said Smith. "You can't go by drops or overthrows. Every team has to overcome things. There are good things and bad and you have to take them both."
Pinkel said the real momentum change came in the second half when Groce raced 89 yards with a punt return for a touchdown and a 21-13 Husker lead.
"When you're in a close game and give one touchdown up on a punt return, it's not good," he said. "Not to devaluate his return, but even against a good punt returner, you don't do that. You can't give a low hang time with a punt returner like him. That wasn't a fluke -- he's done it before. But it was a huge momentum play."
Pinkel bemoaned the possible momentum shift that slipped away from the Tigers earlier in the half. After stopping the Huskers on downs to open the second half, NU punter Kyle Larson hesitated after he took the snap and then bulled his way for 8 yards and a first down. Even though Nebraska didn't score on the series, eventually punting to the Tigers' 28-yard line, Pinkel said that play was big.
"That might have changed things when he bobbled the ball. We had a punt block on and I don't know how he got through," Pinkel said. "If we got the ball there, it might have really changed things. Instead, we end up punting and they get the return. You can't give up a punt return and beat Nebraska. There were certainly some things that we did OK, but if you are going to win games like this, you can't make mistakes.
"We're a different team than last year, but we're still not good enough to beat Nebraska. You hate to waste an opportunity, but Nebraska is obviously a great football program."
Reach Ryly Jane Hambleton at 473-7314 or firstname.lastname@example.org