LINCOLN, Neb. -- There were 10 months of anticipation leading up to Nebraska's previous outing on this field. A summer kerfuffle that ended with Nebraska packing its bags for the Big Ten poured gasoline on a fire white-hot from a controversial end to the Big 12 title game.
The Huskers wanted to beat Texas, and wanted to do so badly. Probably more than Missouri, a rivalry that in some ways stretched the definition of the word since it was one-sided for so much of the past three decades.
Nebraska wrote the final chapter of a rivalry more than a century old with a flurry of long runs and a quarterback-flustering defense, beating Missouri 31-17 and taking a firm grasp of the Big 12 North.
For all the sweet satisfaction that would have come with slapping around the Longhorns on the way out the door, a win against Missouri was the parting shot Nebraska needed. For the here and now, the Tigers were the team standing between Nebraska and a substantial 2010 season.
Nebraska running back Roy Helu Jr. broke through the line untouched on the Huskers first offensive snap. His 66-yard run was only part of a 24-0 first quarter pounding that was enough offense for the game. Nebraska hung 31 points on the board without taking a snap in Missouri's red zone.
"You're not doing anything magical," said coach Bo Pelini of his team's start. "It's just by executing -- doing what you've been coached to do."
Injuries to a pair of stars, quarterback Taylor Martinez and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard (both plan to return next week), didn't change the outcome. Martinez's replacement, Zac Lee, only needed to throw three passes and run twice to secure the win in the second half. Dennard's replacement, true freshman Ciante Evans, mostly went unnoticed by everyone but Missouri's offense, which is exactly what happens when good cornerbacks play well.
Gone were the fumbles and dropped passes that ended many Nebraska drives against the Longhorns here two weeks ago.
"We've been working on it, can't you tell?" said offensive coordinator Shawn Watson. "It's good to see their freakin' hard work finally pay off. It means practice pays off."
Said Pelini: "The big part of the football game was no turnovers ... You win the takeaway battle in a game like this and that's big."
Helu finished with a school-record 307 yards rushing -- the best performance by a runner in college football this season -- after two more long touchdown runs and a handful of punishing runs up the middle. Helu had to be notified, along with the rest of the 85,907 in attendance, of his record by the public address announcer. After the game, teammates gave him a water bottle bath, the little brother of the 20-gallon Gatorade bath reserved for championship-winning coaches.
"They were acting like we won the Super Bowl or something," Helu said with a laugh.
So maybe this didn't provide the state-wide pleasure a win over Texas might have, but it meant a whole lot to the Huskers on the field. While Missouri will have to spend postgame Saturday nights checking the scoreboard in hopes of some luck, Nebraska knows that if it does what it did on Saturday for the next four weeks, it'll get another chance at the Big 12 title game that so narrowly eluded it a season ago.
"You have to go earn it every Saturday," Helu said. "We know that as an offensive unit, and whoever we play has to earn it as well."
Said Lee: "The Texas game was very unlike us, and I think this is us. This is just how we play. You can call the Texas game an outlier, probably. It's just one of those things that happened, and we learned from it."
Nebraska's early sprint out of the gates wouldn't have meant much against a Missouri offense that hadn't been held below 24 points this season since their opener. The Blackshirts dropped back into coverage and rushed just three or four linemen most often, forcing Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert to buy time with an unsure shuffle in the backfield and run when he would rather have passed.
Sometimes Nebraska got to him with those three or four up front, thanks to a defensive backfield that was dominant for 60 minutes. When the Huskers did blitz, they often got to Gabbert quickly -- including a big hit from the front he never saw coming.
"When we saw indecision on his face, you definitely know you've got him, but you can't quit pushing," said defensive lineman Jared Crick.
The Huskers sacked Gabbert five times with no Nebraska defender getting more than one. Plenty of the sacks were a result of blanket coverage downfield, giving Gabbert no place to go with the ball.
"I though the defense played well. They played inspired. They executed," Pelini said. "They played hard and they played with passion. That's all you can ask for from them."
That passion was never on display more than during the Huskers' goal-line stand in the third quarter. They stopped Missouri three times from gaining the final yard before a false start forced Missouri to settle for a field goal that brought them to within 14 points. The third stop set off a raucous Blackshirt celebration and a few fist pumps from a happy coach on the sideline.
"That was a heck of a deal. A lot of times teams get into that situation and it's almost like it's conceded," Pelini said. "Our players, yeah, they weren't conceding anything out there."
Nebraska doesn't plan on conceding the North division in its final year of membership either.
"I'm always emotional," Pelini said of the win, "but I was excited."