Lincoln -- It took a little while, but once Heisman Trophy candidate Eric Crouch and top-ranked Nebraska got rolling, it was clear that Missouri coach Larry Smith would again fall to a ranked opponent.
Crouch threw a pair of touchdown passes and ran for a score but it was safety Jamie Burrow's third-quarter fumble return that broke Missouri's back and lifted the Cornhuskers to a 42-24 victory in the Big 12 Conference opener for both teams.
"I think that we're the best-conditioned team in the country," Crouch said. "Eventually, we get into a rhythm offensively with the option and the power game and that helps us take over."
The Cornhuskers (4-0, 1-0 Big 12 North) handed the Tigers their 22nd straight loss in the series since 1978 and dropped Smith's record against ranked opponents to 1-25 during his six-plus seasons at Missouri.
"I thing the one player that had the most effect on the game was Eric Crouch," Smith said. "I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. I think he is a great, great young football player and I think he will take Nebraska a long, long way."
Crouch, who matched a school record with five touchdown passes last week against Iowa, completed 11-of-23 passes for 173 yards and carried 24 times for 110 yards. The 6-1, 205-pound junior gave Nebraska the lead for good when he found running back Correll Buckhalter with a 34-yard scoring pass 3:45 into the second quarter.
"They came in here and played like they didn't have anything to lose," Crouch said of Missouri. "They used 110 percent effort and gave their best shot. We gave them our best shot back."
"I think you put the ball in his hands quite often in a game, if not, then I would think that maybe he's not being used the way you would like to use him," Nebraska coach Frank Solich said. "He's throwing the ball well. All in all, he made some big plays for us through the air as well as big plays on the ground."
Bobby Newcombe established a school record with a 94-yard punt return with just over 3 1/2 minutes left before intermission but the Tigers (1-3, 0-1) would not go away easily. Kirk Farmer, who completed 13-of-25 passes for 214 yards before suffering a broken collarbone in the third quarter, hit Justin Gage with a 48-yard TD pass as Iowa cut the deficit to 21-14 with two minutes left in the half.
Crouch answered immediately, capping the ensuing drive with a 13-yard scoring pass to tight end Jon Bowling, re-establishing a 14-point cushion 65 seconds before the break.
"(Crouch) read it and I was open," Bowling said of his first career touchdown reception. "He threw it right in my hands. It was an awesome feeling to get that touchdown. It was a great motivational play. We got the momentum going into the second half."
Zack Abron opened the second-half scoring with a 13-yard TD run as Missouri, which nearly upset the top-ranked Huskers in the well-chronicled "Kicked Ball Game" in 1997, again closed to seven points.
With the ball and chance to forge ahead, the Tigers dropped the ball, literally, and watched as Burrow scampered in from 28 yards out with Abron's fumble, giving Nebraska a 35-21 lead with 8:14 left in the third quarter.
Missouri did not seriously challenge thereafter and Crouch capped the scoring on a eight-yard TD run with 5:31 to play.
"I like the carries. I would carry the ball 35 times if I had to," Crouch said.
Buckhalter finished with 94 yards on seven carries.
Farmer opened the scoring with a one-yard run midway through the first quarter that put an early scare into the crowd of 77,744 at Memorial Stadium.
But Crouch orchestrated an 11-play, 64-yard drive that Dan Alexander capped with a two-yard run, forging a 7-7 tie with 2:06 left in the first quarter.
Buckhalter pulled in Crouch's short pass and rumbled through several defenders and into the end zone to put Nebraska ahead to stay, 14-7, with 11:15 remaining in the first half.
Farmer did his best to offset Crouch's latest virtuoso performance, rushing for a career-high 83 yards on nine carries as well as catching a 35-yard pass from Gage. But he was unable to take the field for the fourth quarter after suffering his injury.
"It's very unfortunate news," Farmer said of the injured shoulder. "It's upsetting that this happen at this time. It's something that I'm just going to have to work with."
Newcombe's punt return broke the long-standing 92-yard record set by Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers against Oklahoma State in 1971. Ironically, Rogers was honored in a pregame ceremony prior to tonight's game. The run also tied the Big 12 record shared by three others, including Kansas State's David Allen, who did it last year against Iowa State.
"At first I thought there might be a flag," Newcombe said. "But when I saw my teammates running toward me, I knew that there wasn't. Then I started jumping for joy."
Nebraska was burned for a pair of special teams touchdowns in a narrow overtime win at Notre Dame several weeks ago and Solich indicated that he would address what he viewed as his team's biggest weakness.
"We improved in some areas," Solich said. "We covered punts well. Kickoff coverage and kickoff returns are still areas where we need to keep working very hard on and get better at. Punt returns looked better today. Whenever you start getting a few blocks for a player like Bobby, then you have a chance to make big plays."
Nebraska Postgame Notes vs Missouri, Sept. 30, 2000
The No. 1 Nebraska Cornhuskers improved to 4-0 on the season, while Missouri dropped to 1-3 on the year; after the Huskers defeated the Tigers 42-24 in Lincoln. Missouri scored first, marking the third time this year that Nebraska has trailed in a game (also vs. Iowa first quarter and vs. Notre Dame in the overtime). In the first half, Missouri scored first on their second drive on a Kirk Farmer one-yard run to take a 7-0 lead. The Huskers scored on a two-yard run by Dan Alexander; a 34-yard pass from Eric Crouch to Correll Buckhalter a school-record long 94-yard punt return by Bobby Newcombe to take a 21-7 lead with 3:34 remaining in the first half. That wasn?t the end of the scoring however, as Missouri closed to within seven on a Kirk Farmer to Justin Gage 48-yard pass (season long vs. NU), while NU put it in the end zone again on a 13-yard pass from Crouch to tight end Jon Bowling with 1:05 remaining to put the score at 28-14 at halftime.
In the second half, Missouri scored on Zack Abron?s 13-yard run, NU answered on defense when Jamie Burrow picked up Abron?s fumble and returned it 28 yards for a score. Missouri closed to within 11 on a Brad Hammerich 27-yard field goal, but NU scored on a Crouch eight-yard run with 5:31 remaining in the game. This marks the third time in four games this season that Nebraska has scored 42 or more points.
The win marked Nebraska's 10th straight win overall; gave NU a 44-6-1 record when playing as AP's No. 1 team, seventh straight win as No. 1; was NU?s 10th straight at home; was NU?s 22nd straight win over Missouri; the 26th time the Huskers have won their conference opener; and gave Solich a 25-5 three-year record. Next week, the Huskers travel to Iowa State for a 2:30 p.m. kickoff on ABC.
* Quarterback Eric Crouch...was Nebraska?s leading rusher. He carried 24 times for 110 yards and one TD. It marked his first 100-yard rushing day this year, and the sixth in his career. He scored on an eight-yard run with 5:31 remaining in the fourth quarter to put the Huskers up 42-24. In the game, he also completed 11-of-23 pass attempts for a season-best 173 yards with two passing TDs and no interceptions. He had a career-high 47 total offense attempts (previous most was 44 vs. Kansas State in 1999) for a career-best 283 total offense yards (previous best 247 vs. Kansas State, 1998). His 23 pass attempts are a regular-season career best (betters 22 vs. Colorado, 1998, but less than 28 in 1998 Holiday Bowl vs. Arizona). He has rushed for at least 50 yards in each of his last nine games and has scored a rushing touchdown in 14 of the last 17 games. Crouch now has eight passing TDs on the season, a season career-best, bettering the seven TD passes he threw as a sophomore in 1999.
* I-back Dan Alexander...rushed 13 times for 34 yards and scored Nebraska?s first touchdown on a two-yard run with 2:06 remaining in the second quarter. His streak of four straight 100-yard rushing games came to an end, but he has scored at least one rushing touchdown in four of the last five games.
* Senior split end Matt Davison...had a season-best five catches for 66 yards vs. Missouri. Davison has caught at least one pass in 31 of the last 33 games and in each of last seven. He now has 82 receptions for 1,258 yards to rank second in receiving yards, passing All-American Irving Fryar's 1,196 yards (from 1981-83). He is now tied for second on the NU receptions chart with 82, with Jeff Kinney's 82 receptions (from 1969 to 1971). Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers, who will be honored in tonight's pregame ceremony, owns both school records (143 catches for 2,479 yards and 26 TDs from 1970 to 1972). All five of Davison?s catches tonight went for first downs.
* Tight End Tracey Wistrom...has caught at least one pass in each of the last seven games he has played. He had two catches for 27 yards vs. Missouri, both went for first downs.
* Wingback Bobby Newcombe...gave the Huskers a 21-7 lead with 3:34 remaining in the first half with a school-record long punt return. The previous school record was held by Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers, who was honored in pregame ceremonies tonight. Rodgers set the record with a 92-yard run at Oklahoma State on Oct 23, 1971. The run also tied the Big 12 record, held by three others (David Allen, KSU vs. ISU, 9/25/99; Lamar Chapman, KSU vs. Ohio, 9/13/97; and Issac Byrd, KU vs. OU, 10/5/96). Newcombe also had one catch for 18 yards. He has caught at least one pass in 12 straight games. Newcombe moved up to sixth on the NU career punt return yards chart with 675 yards (3-100 vs. Missouri). Newcombe now has four career punt return touchdowns (also a 60-yard return vs. Tennessee in the 2000 Fiesta Bowl; an 86-yard return vs. Kansas in 1999; and a 53 yard return vs. Iowa State in 1997).
* I-back Correll Buckhalter...was NU?s second-leading rusher in the game with seven carries for 94 yards and scored Nebraska?s second touchdown of the game catching a 34-yard pass from Crouch in the first quarter. It was Buckhalter?s first reception for a TD and the longest of his career. Buckhalter?s previous bests were 29 yards vs. Colorado in 1998 and a long reception of 26 yards vs. Texas in 1999. Buckhalter has now has rushed for 2,126 career yards and 340 have come against Missouri (94 in 2000, 132 in 1999, 125 in 1998, minus 1 in 1997). Buckhalter also had a career-long 58-yard run (assisted by a great block by split end Wilson Thomas), which led to the Crouch to Bowling TD in the second quarter. His previous career long was 57 yards vs. Missouri in 1999.
* Rushing...NU rushed for 311 yards on 53 carries, marking the 100th straight time that NU has won a game when rushing for 300 or more yards. It also third time in four games NU has rushed for at least 300 yards. NU has had at least one 100-yard rusher in every game this season, but this is the first time this season that Crouch has led the Huskers in rushing.
* Place-Kicker Josh Brown...has made 60 consecutive PATs and nine of his last 11 field goal attempts (missed a 42-yard field goal attempt vs. Missouri in third quarter). He hasn't missed a PAT since his first attempt against Southern Mississippi on Sept. 18, 1999 (game three of the season).
* Husker Blackshirts...Linebacker Jamie Burrow returned a fumble by Zack Abron (caused by NU rush end Chris Kelsay), 28 yards for a touchdown with 8:14 remaining in the third quarter. It was Nebraska?s first fumble recovery this season and longest return for a TD since Demoine Adams had a 37-yard fumble return for a TD vs. Iowa State on Oct. 9, 1999. It marks the second defensive TD this season (also a Scott Shanle interception return vs. Iowa) and NU?s third return TD on the season (counting Newcombe?s punt return for TD). The last time NU had two returns of any kind for a TD in a game was Julius Jackson?s two (1 interception, 1 fumble) vs. Southern Miss in 1999. With 4:53 remaining in the game, LB Carlos Polk caused Darius Outlaw to throw an interception to NU linebacker Troy Watchorn. It was Watchorn?s second this season and second of his career. Defensive tackle Jeremy Slechta had a career-best 3 pass breakups in the game. Unofficially, Polk led the team with six tackles, while RE Kyle Vanden Bosch and LB Mark Vedral had five. After Watchorn?s interception, Husker fullback Judd Davies carried three times for 65 yards on the ensuing drive (27, 6, 32) and I-back Correll Buckhalter had a 23-yard run to the Missouri 1-yard line, but penalties put the Huskers back and MU kept NU from converting the turnover to a score.
* Firsts and Bests...Sophomore tight end Jon Bowling caught his first career TD pass, a 13-yarder from Eric Crouch, with 1:05 remaining in the first half to give NU a 28-14 lead. Fullback Judd Davies rushed three times for a career-best 65 yards (previous best 13 vs. Notre Dame) and caught his first pass, a 15 yarder.
* Nebraska Team Highs...Passing attempts 23; Passing completions 11; Yards passing 173; Total plays 76; Penalties 7; Opponent Highs...Yards rushing 209; Yards passing 283; Total yards 492 (13 yards off the opponent top 10 list); Points 24 (ties 24 by Notre Dame); First d owns 22; Turnovers 2.
* Nebraska Injuries...starting defensive tackle Loran Kaiser injured his left foot on the first series, had X-rays and did not return. Defensive tackle Jon Clanton did not play as he was out of town attending his grandmother?s funeral. Carlos Polk left the game in the first quarter with a sore left ankle, but returned.
NOTE: The Food Bank collected 3,100 pounds of food before the game.