LINCOLN, Neb. • A week ago, this had been their moment, their party, their time to live the college football high life. But now the Mizzou Tigers were in another town, watching helplessly as Nebraska's Memorial Stadium shivered with all the wrong noise.
It was the deafening noise of a missed opportunity.
It was the thunderous noise of 85,000 Nebraska revelers on Saturday evening, who knew their Cornhuskers had just punched a a giant hole in Missouri's perfect season. They chanted "Go Big Red!" endlessly as the clock kept ticking down the final moments of this 31-17 Nebraska victory, and they reveled in the moment as the Tigers had to take full inventory of the high cost of this defeat.
"A week ago you beat the No.1 team in the country, and then you come in here and lose," said wide receiver T.J. Moe, shaking his head.
"It (stinks)," said Tim Barnes, the beefy offensive lineman.
Oh, it did a lot more than that. It spoiled a lot of very realistic goals and abruptly shoved the 7-1 Tigers right out of college football's penthouse before they could begin to set up housekeeping. Gone is the unbeaten season, the meteoric climb toward the top of the BCS rankings and all those lightheaded conversations about so many potential national championship possibilities that seemed so real after last week's victory over the BCS' then-No.1 ranked Oklahoma Sooners.
But it didn't wreck the season.
At least not yet.
There are other lofty goals that are still out there, like a run to the Big 12 championship game, like a conference title, like a big-money BCS bowl game and a season that still could end with only one defeat and in this very peculiar season where there are no true super teams, the Tigers could still rebound from this one slip-up and make the 2010 season quite memorable.
But, boy, this one sure is going to leave a mark.
Think of all the most unlikely ways Mizzou could lose and it happened Saturday. The always sturdy defense fell apart at the seams. The once-potent offense that lit up Oklahoma for 36 points last week could only find the end zone twice.
Nebraska piled up 328 yards rushing, 454 yards of total offense and raced out to a 24-0 first-quarter lead and exposed the Tigers with one undisciplined defensive breakdown after another.
It's difficult to comprehend how many times Nebraska tailback Roy Helu Jr. (school-record 307 yards rushing) was able to gash the Mizzou defense without being touched by anyone. It was a horrible nightmare of lack of containment.
Helu had a 66-yard TD on Nebraska's first play from scrimmage where he wasn't touched, and a 73-yarder where he wasn't touched, and a 53-yarder in the third quarter where he wasn't touched at all.
"You have 10 guys doing the same thing and one guy on defense who doesn't," said safety Andrew Gachkar, "and they capitalized on it. I thought all four of their touchdowns were missed assignments, which is a bad day for your defense."
Bad doesn't begin to describe it.
The same Mizzou defense that had been so bold and effective in coordinator Dave Steckel's brash, attacking style made one mistake after another when he called the same blitzes against Nebraska that one week earlier flummoxed the Sooners.
All it took was one defender to miss his gap and that led to getting burned.
But it wasn't just the defense. It was the offense that looked so oddly out of sorts, too. "We felt all game long like we were only two plays away from being back in the game," said Barnes. "But we just never got those two plays."
What they got instead were receivers who couldn't get open against Nebraska's man coverage and quarterback Blaine Gabbert (who took several vicious blows to the head that were not called) who couldn't hit open targets (18 of 42 for 199 yards) and an offensive line that couldn't keep him upright (six sacks) because the receivers couldn't get open.
But just as Barnes said, this game always felt like the Tigers were always not quite in it, but never quite out of it either, which only added to the frustration of this grand missed opportunity.
But here's what Mizzou needs to remember. The national championship conversation might have been cast aside, but almost everything else is still on the table. If the Tigers (3-1 in the Big 12) run the table and finish the regular season with an 11-1 record and only one loss in the Big 12, Nebraska (also 3-1) could possibly lose another game along the way and Mizzou could still win the North Division.
And a trip back to the conference championship game could open up all sorts of possibilities, particularly since the Big 12 South seems to be taking on some fascinating possibilities of its own, too (hello Baylor, king of the South?)
If Mizzou can rebound from this loss and find its way to the conference championship game, a BCS bowl awaits against a highly regarded opponent.
So it's up to the Tigers to show us if this was a major setback or a slight little bump in the road.