Collision in Columbia

By Wendell Barnhouse |
Big 12 Correspondent

There are numerous subplots swirling around Nebraska's visit to Missouri Thursday night.

* The Huskers are ranked 22nd, Missouri is No. 18. Nebraska has lost its last seven and 14 of the last 15 road games against ranked opponents.

* After spending nearly two decades as a doormat to Nebraska's muddy feet, Missouri has won four of the last six games with the Huskers. The Tigers also have won the last two North Division titles (even though last year both teams finished with 5-3 records).

* Nebraska (3-1), in the second season under coach Bo Pelini, wants to prove that it has returned to prominence. Missouri (4-0) wants to show that it is reloading, not rebuilding.

* With Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas considered the Big Three in the North Division, Thursday's game (8 p.m., ESPN) is an early defining moment that gives the winner a head-to-head tiebreaker edge over the loser.

"This is it. This is the road to the Big 12 championship, and it starts with us and Nebraska on Thursday night," Missouri defensive lineman Jaron Baston said. "There's no better way to start it out than on a Thursday night in front of a national crowd to show people that we're still here to stay."

Both teams went into the season with the uncertainty of a new starting quarterback.

Missouri sophomore quarterback Blaine Gabbert leads the Big 12 in pass efficiency. He has completed 66.4 percent of his passes, has yet to throw an interception and has 11 touchdown passes.

"What I wanted from Blaine was to have focus, to go out and improve every week," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. "He's pretty focused. He's learning things each game, some good, some bad. But you learn from the process. He doesn't have a lot of experience yet, and I think he's going to get better over time.

Nebraska junior Zac Lee has been solid in his first four starts. His worst game came in Nebraska's only loss. He completed only 11 of 30 passes for 136 yards and the Huskers failed to score a touchdown in a 16-15 loss at Virginia Tech.

"All we ever ask Zac to do is manage our offense," Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson told the Lincoln Journal-Star. "Be efficient like he was this last game. I just want to see him continue to grow."

Nebraska at Missouri
Need to know: 8 p.m., Memorial Stadium, ESPN.
Records: Nebraska 3-1, Missouri 4-0.
Scouting Nebraska: The Cornhuskers have a balanced attack. Quarterback Zac Lee has been effective but was below average in Nebraska's only road game (and loss). Running back Roy Helu Jr. has had no trouble carrying the bulk of the load. The defense, led by defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, has been above average. Nebraska leads the nation, allowing just 7 points per game.
Scouting Missouri: The Tigers hoped to have a potent running game to take the pressure of sophomore QB Blaine Gabbert but so far Missouri is 10th in the Big 12, averaging 143 yards per game on the ground. Gabbert leads the Big 12 in passing efficiency and his play-making ability has allowed the Tigers to hit more big plays. The defense has been solid, especially against the pass.
This and that: The 28 points Nebraska has allowed is the fewest it has given up in four games cine 1990. ... The 222 yards by Louisiana-Lafayette in last week's shutout was a season-low for the Huskers. Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert hasn't been intercepted in 131 attempts this season. ... Nebraska running back Roy Helu Jr. leads the Big 12 in rushing at 116 yards per game. ... The Tigers have beaten the Huskers three consecutive times in Columbia with the average margin 23 points