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October 14, 2009

Nebraska rises up in Big 12 North

COLUMBIA, Mo. - Now, it finally can be said: Nebraska is back.

The comeback was completed Thursday night. It's the night the old Nebraska died during a 27-12 come-from-behind victory over Missouri.

There's no way Bill Callahan's Nebraska teams come back from a 12-0, fourth-quarter deficit to win. Could Frank Solich's Nebraska squads have done it? No.

But these are Bo Pelini's Huskers. The offense was sputtering, the special teams were struggling, yet Nebraska stayed focused and didn't fold on a rainy night it had every right to.

"We talked about it at halftime," Pelini says. "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 just 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."

Are the Huskers national title contenders? No way. Is Nebraska capable of toppling, say, Texas in the Big 12 title game? Probably not. But this certainly looks like the best team in the Big 12 North. True, winning the Big 12 North has little, if any, cachet. The North winner hasn't won the Big 12 title game since 2003. But it's still a needed step for a program that hasn't won the Big 12 since 1999 and hasn't played in the league title game since 2006.

The South Division champ has won the past five Big 12 championship games. The dominance plays out during the regular season. Here is a look at how the South has fared against the North in each of the past five seasons. This season, the South has a 2-0 edge.
"It feels great; it's a great start to Big 12 play," defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh says. "It's one of those [games] that means a little more to us. We want to dominate the Big 12 North and start it off the right way. It was not exactly the way we wanted to win, but I'll take it."

Nebraska (4-1) is just a fourth-quarter meltdown at Virginia Tech away from being 5-0. The Huskers have a favorable schedule, and there's a chance they will be favored in each of their remaining games. The toughest tests will come on back-to-back Saturdays in November, when the Huskers host Oklahoma on Nov. 7 and travel to Kansas on Nov. 14.

But Pelini won't dare peek past this week's home game against Texas Tech. And he is hesitant to call the Missouri win any kind of benchmark victory.

"I don't get into all of that," he says. "This game, it's just like I said: It's just part of the process, part of where we are. We're not going to address or handle this win any different than we do any other week. It's on to the next game. We'll enjoy it and then we'll get back to work, fix a lot of things that need to be fixed."

Pelini knows there is room for improvement. The offense remains a work in progress against good defenses, and the back seven on defense isn't overly athletic -- though it has been effective enough for this to be the No. 3 defense in the Big 12 (273.4 yards per game). Still, more than anything, the swagger is tangible.

The game with Nebraska was supposed to be a chance to show the doubters that Missouri could reload -- and not have to rebuild -- after losing star players such as quarterback Chase Daniel, wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, tight end Chase Coffman and defensive tackle Ziggy Hood.

But the loss showed the Tigers aren't a prime-time team this season. The offense sputtered, gaining just 225 yards. Hampered by an ankle sprain suffered in the first half, sophomore quarterback Blaine Gabbert played like a new starter, going just 17-of-43 for 134 yards, with two interceptions and two sacks.

"Obviously you deal with anxiety, frustration and disappointment," coach Gary Pinkel says. "But you've got to learn from it and look at the leadership of your team and my leadership and the things that I'm supposed to do with our football team. You evaluate, you learn and try to make corrections so that you don't do it again. It's all just a part of football."

The biggest issue for Missouri is improving its rushing attack, which ranks 10th in the Big 12. A better ground game would take pressure off Gabbert.

The bottom of the Big 12 North isn't good, which means Missouri still has a chance to finish second in the division. But Mizzou's season also could start to unravel the next two weeks, with a trip to Oklahoma State on Saturday followed by a visit from Texas.
Fueling even more excitement is that next season is when the program should really blossom. Most of this season's starters will be back, including quarterback Zac Lee, running back Roy Helu and tight end Mike McNeill on offense and end Pierre Allen, linebacker Will Compton and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard on defense. That makes the early success of this season that much sweeter.

There was no such optimism when Pelini waded into Lincoln after the 2007 season amid the wreckage left by Callahan, who had promised to change the culture of Nebraska but only disenfranchised the fan base and sullied the program's reputation by going 27-22 in four seasons.

Last season, Nebraska won six of its last seven games to finish 9-4, capping an overachieving season with a Gator Bowl win over Clemson. Now, greater possibilities loom for a team that has won 10 of its past 12 games.

The Missouri victory was an important on-field accomplishment, and it also was symbolic. Nebraska beat the team that had won the past two Big 12 North titles. That had to stop -- and it did.

Credit for the victory goes to Nebraska's defense, which time and again stuffed Missouri behind the play of Suh. There were 26 NFL scouts peering at the player whose name and helmet are emblazoned on the Kenworth semi that carries the Huskers' gear to road games.

And Suh dominated with six tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and interception despite facing constant double-teams. Suh, who played high school football in Oregon, might be the best defensive player in the nation.

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

Victories over Missouri didn't used to be reasons to celebrate in Lincoln. There was a time when the Huskers dominated Mizzou, winning 24 meetings in a row. But Nebraska had lost four of the past six to Missouri. And last season was rock bottom: The Tigers won 52-17 in Lincoln, Nebraska's worst home loss since 1955.

After that humiliating loss, Pelini gathered his staff to talk about what was and wasn't working. It proved to be a turning point, just like Thursday's victory over Missouri.

"It just shows our character, how we could pull through at the end," Nebraska kicker Alex Henery says. "Even though we weren't playing very well early on, it showed in the end. We came out with the win."

Tom Dienhart is the national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.

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