NORTH PLATTE - A name with the strongest possible ties to Nebraska football past helped win a game that was absolutely critical to building a new future for the Cornhusker program.
Bo Ruud helped hold together an injury-depleted Husker linebacker corps Saturday as Nebraska took a stranglehold on the Big 12 North race with a 34-20 Homecoming victory over Missouri at Memorial Stadium.
Ruud, whose brother, father, great-grandfather and uncles also played football for the Big Red, was central to the Blackshirts’ encouraging performance against Missouri’s high-powered spread attack. The 6-foot-3, 235-pound junior had seven tackles, one sack, forced a fumble and recovered it and returned an intercepted pass 40 yards to set up a touchdown.
Ruud, along with Stewart Bradley and Lance Brandenburg, played a strong game at linebacker, with some help from Clayton Sievers, allowing Cory McKeon and Steve Octavien to watch the entire game from the sidelines while their nagging ankle injuries heal. Brandenburg played despite a fractured thumb and Sievers missed several games earlier this season with injuries as well. When you throw in an encouraging six-tackle performance by freshman safety Major Culbert, it was a more-than-adequate day for the defense.
The Huskers will need a healthy McKeon and Octavien next week at Kyle Field in College Station, Texas, if they are to give Bill Callahan his first win over a Big 12 South team that is not named Baylor. But without them, the Blackshirts stuffed Missouri on its first four possessions, allowing the Huskers to build a 17-0 lead that made the difference in the final margin of victory.
Linebacker and offensive line have been the positions hardest-hit by injuries for NU the last two seasons as Callahan and his staff struggle to build depth and consistency while digging NU out of a five-year downturn. There is a long way to go, as those of us whose memories are at least one week long can agree, but the Huskers took a much
The offensive line got a boost from a trio of reserves Saturday. Jacob Hickman, a 280-pound redshirt freshman guard from California, made his first start. Sophomore Lydon Murtha, who had been demoted earlier this season from his starting left tackle spot, moved ahead of Chris Patrick and started the game, as did guard Andy Christensen, who filled in for the injured Greg Austin. That threesome played well enough to give a much-needed spark of hope for the future of the NU offensive line, which had allowed 13 sacks over the past three games. Missouri, rated 12th in the nation in quarterback sacks, could not sack Zac Taylor once.
For weeks, it had been obvious that the NU-Mizzou clash would be the pivotal moment in the race for the Big 12 North title, which has been Callahan’s stated goal all season. Given the well-documented weakness of the division, nobody around the nation will be impressed with a Big 12 North title, but unless the Huskers collapse against Colorado, the Huskers will have at least the experience of playing in their first Big 12 title game in seven years. Even a loss in Kansas City would give the Huskers something on which to build higher expectations in 2007.
Conversely, a third consecutive loss for the second season in a row would have been a huge setback for the program. It will take more than a Big 12 North title to satisfy the majority of the Husker Nation that mediocrity is in the rearview mirror, but it is the next major step.
That checkpoint was passed successfully in front of an all-time Memorial Stadium record crowd of 85,197. It was 40 years to the day after Nebraska’s NCAA-record 281-game consecutive sellout streak began on Homecoming against Missouri in Bob Devaney’s first season. Those fans saw Coach Bill Busch and the Huskers mend some major holes in their special teams. They roared with joy as Jake Wesch booted three touchbacks on kickoffs, matching the Huskers’ previous season total, and the kickoff team held Missouri inside their own 25 on the rest of the kickoffs. Jordan Congdon made two field goals, and Dan Titchener did a solid job of punting.
The next objective is settling on the means of advance to Kansas City. Will it be a march of attrition, with a loss to nationally-rated Texas A&M that forces the Huskers to hold serve against Colorado, or will the Huskers be able to roll into Arrowhead Stadium with only three losses and a measure of momentum?