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Special teams sink MU
By Graham Watson
Of the Post-Dispatch
10/30/2004

LINCOLN, Neb. - The battle for the Big 12 North lived up to its billing as one of the more mediocre football games in the conference this season.

In a game that was called a "braggin' rights battle," the only thing Nebraska could brag about after its 24-3 win against Missouri was that it was only slightly less mediocre than the Tigers.

For the third consecutive game, the Tigers defense excelled while the offense floundered. The running game, playing without leading running back Damien Nash, who was suspended for a violation of team rules, had its worst showing of the season as it accumulated just 51 yards. The passing game kept the Tigers from having their worst offensive output of the season, but quarterback Brad Smith had to throw the ball 56 times to achieve the Tigers' 277 passing yards.

"We're questioning not playing well, and we're questioning ourselves," left tackle Scott Paffrath said. "This is the most miserable I think I've been since I've been here. The defense is playing their (behinds) off and (the offense) has got to support them."

Earlier in the week, offensive coordinator Dave Christensen said Missouri would not deviate from the game plan it used against Texas and Oklahoma State - both losses. What didn't work against both of those teams continued not to work against Nebraska.

Every time Smith would check out of a play, the Nebraska defense was there to stop it. Often, Smith had to roll out of the pocket and throw the ball out of bounds to keep from being sacked. Even when the Tigers were able to mount an offense, Smith was either sacked or hurried, or the running game was stuffed.

The Tigers' field-goal unit provided little relief, missing two of its three kicks.

But Nebraska couldn't claim it did much better. Quarterback Joe Dailey passed for just 26 yards but found that handing the ball to running backs Cory Ross and Brandon Jackson provided the most offensive production. Nebraska had 209 rushing yards, 86 of those on a touchdown by Ross late in the game.

But it wasn't the Nebraska defense or even the offense that proved the difference in front of 77,616 at Memorial Stadium. It was special teams.

The 'Huskers scored their first touchdown after Andrew Shanle blocked a punt off Matt Hoenes' foot and Adam Ickes picked it up and ran it 16 yards for the touchdown to make the score 10-3. It was the 'Huskers first punt block of the season.

Nebraska's special teams sealed the win late in the third quarter after Hoenes dropped the snap and attempted to run the ball to his right. Hoenes tried to punt the ball while running, but he whiffed and fell down. Again, Shanle fell on the ball and set up a 15-yard touchdown run by Ross on the ensuing play.

It was the 'Huskers second consecutive week with a botched punt returned for a touchdown. Last week, Danny Bullocks picked up a ball that slipped through the Kansas State punter's hands.

"I thought our kicking game was pretty sound until today, obviously," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. "You just can't make plays like that. ... You can't make errors like that in your kicking game in a game of this magnitude. That was huge."

Without the play of the special teams, the Nebraska offense was impotent. The 'Huskers are 0 of 22 on third-down conversions over the last six quarters.

The win puts Nebraska alone in first place in the Big 12 North, with three games remaining in the season. Nebraska is 5-3 overall and 3-2 in the Big 12. Mizzou fell to 4-4 overall and 2-3 in the conference.

"You lose three in a row and you've got a chance to lead the Big 12 and we lose up here? Of course we hurt," wide receiver Thomson Omboga said. "This was a game that was winable. All those losses that we took were winable games. It was just a matter of somebody making a play and getting it done."