Rally puts Nebraska in North driver's seat

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- It wasn’t anything unexpected or shocking as far as Bo Pelini was concerned.

The Nebraska coach had seen his team battle and come close in the first half against Missouri. The way the Cornhuskers had played early, Pelini figured it was just a matter of time before his team finally turned things around.

“We talked about it at the half,” Pelini said. “We said we wouldn’t walk out of here without a win. We just kept fighting and just never let the game get away.”

Pelini seemed so matter-of-fact when he described the rally, it almost detracted from the momentousness of the Cornhuskers’ wild 27-12 comeback over Missouri.

It was unquestionably the biggest victory in Pelini’s short head coaching career. Not only did he slay the program’s most obvious recent monster in Missouri, but he did it with the panache that the Cornhuskers used to play with when they were the most feared program in the Big Eight and the early stages of the Big 12.

This one was remarkably like the ones that the Cornhuskers used to win over Missouri during their 24-game winning streak over the Tigers from 1979-2002.

But instead of needing a tipped pass or a gritty defensive stop to take the Victory Bell back to Lincoln, the Cornhuskers throttled Missouri with a blizzard of fourth-quarter points when little else had gone right for them earlier in the game.

Who would have thought that Zac Lee would start living up to those comparisons with former Cornhusker mad bomber Vince Ferragamo right before our very eyes?

Maybe Pelini. But few of the other wet spectators who braved the miserable elements at Faurot Field would have believed it.

Lee completed only 9 of his 27 passes for 79 yards through three quarters. There was little in that sputtering effort that would indicate he would erupt to throw back-to-back touchdowns and three touchdowns overall during a span of four pass attempts.

“I’d never had anything quite like this situation,” Lee said. “It just shows our coaches’ trust in us. For them to keep their faith in our offense and keep letting us go out and try to make plays -- we love them for it.”

The late passing binge was a huge turnaround for Lee, who had struggled in the Cornhuskers’ loss against Virginia Tech. Nebraska failed to score an offensive touchdown during a streak of seven quarters against BCS programs before the late charge.

Sure the Cornhuskers looked like world beaters during their unofficial Sun Belt title run. But they had produced 109 yards through three quarters against Missouri Thursday night during an effort that included nearly as many penalties and punts (eight each) as their nine first downs during that slow start.

But that all changed during a remarkable period of 3 minutes, 22 seconds that will be remembered as the time when Pelini’s program took its first major step as the North Division’s favorites.

Kansas has the ridiculously difficult cross-division schedule with games against Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma.

And with Nebraska staring at an upcoming schedule of home games against Texas Tech and Iowa State and a road game against a Robert Griffin-less Baylor, it’s not hard to imagine the Cornhuskers sitting at 7-1 when Oklahoma visits Lincoln on Nov. 7.

Pelini, however, wasn’t ready to go that far after the victory.

“Are we the team to beat in the North? Nah, I’m not going to appoint ourselves as that,” Pelini said. “We’ve still got to win some games ourselves.”

But after Nebraska's first conference game, it was hard for Lee to imagine a sweeter victory -- particularly after his team’s slow start and even faster finish in the elements.

“We probably couldn’t have started the Big 12 in any better way,” Lee said. “This is probably the best way it could have happened for us.

“I was digging deep from the beginning and we didn’t show up until the end. It was an ugly win, but a win nonetheless. And we’ll always take a win.”

That moxie couldn't been a starker change from the Nebraska team that was humiliated 52-17 by Missouri in Lincoln last season.

And Pelini couldn't be happier.

"I think the whole football team grew up a little bit," Pelini said. "We're not the finished product and we still have a long way to go. But we're continuing to grow as a football team."