Nebraskaís running game poses stiff challenge for MUís defense.

By DAVE MATTER of the Tribuneís staff

Story ran on Wednesday, September 26 2001

Cornell Ford has two major tasks as an assistant football coach at Missouri: Coach outside safeties and recruit the St. Louis area. Considering the problems that have plagued MU in the Gateway City during the last decade, youíd think the latter would cause the most headaches. Not this week.

Mark Schiefelbein photo
Defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski, left, and outside safety coach Cornell Ford have been preparing Missouri for Nebraskaís legendary running game.
Missouriís 4-4 defense, brought by first-year coach Gary Pinkel from Toledo, will be thrown into the national spotlight on Saturday. Against the No. 4 Nebraska Cornhuskers and their smashmouth brand of option offense, Fordís safeties will be at the center of the red storm.

"This is big-time pressure," Ford said. "Youíre not going to run into a better option football team than Nebraska.

"Will I have some gray hairs this week? Yeah, you bet."

The defense aligns two inside linebackers, who are flanked on each side by an outside safety - rover Tauras Ferguson and whip Kevin Johnson. The safetiesí responsibilities vary from run-stopping, pass-rushing to covering slot receivers. But against the Cornhuskers, Fordís duo will try to funnel NUís outside runners - either quarterback Eric Crouch or I-back Dahrran Diedrick - into the swarm of tacklers near the middle of the defense.

That, of course, is all in theory.

"Thatís our job," Ford said. "Our job is to keep leverage on the football. We try to keep these guys inside of us and not get outside. We call that leverage, and thatís our primary goal. If we can do that, hopefully we can prevent some big plays."

With all-Americans on the offensive line and good blocking receivers, Nebraskaís running game should provide MU its stiffest challenge this season. But Pinkel is no stranger to defending the option - Ohio ran a variation of the option offense against Toledo in the Mid-American Conference.

"You have to have at least two guys on the quarterback," MU defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus said. "You have as many guys as you can on him, and have everybody else running to the football. Itís still going to come down to us defeating blocks, getting off blocks and making plays. It will be Crouch on the corner, and there will be a blocker in front of him."

Counting on the speed of Ferguson and Johnson, the Tigersí defense is designed to prevent Crouch and Diedrick from piling up yardage, like the Huskers were able to do last year against MU. Crouch gained 110 yards and I-backs Dan Alexander and Correll Buckhalter combined for another 128 in Nebraskaís 42-24 win last year in Lincoln, Neb. The Tigers also canít forget about the first choice in Nebraskaís option - the fullback dive. Fullback Judd Davies totaled 65 yards on just three carries last year.

"On the defensive side, weíre going to be counted on to make big plays," Ferguson said. "Basically, we donít want them to get outside because thatís what they want to do. We just have to contain them."

While Oklahoma spread defenses with four- and five-receiver sets last fall en route to a national championship, Nebraska remained true to its power running game. After two losses in the regular season prompted some to suggest their act was getting tired, the Cornhuskers steamrolled Northwestern in the Alamo Bowl. With 476 yards on the ground and eight rushing touchdowns, Nebraska turned the Wildcats a deeper shade of purple and cruised to a 66-17 win.

This year, the running game is off to a modest start, averaging 240 yards a game, which is still third-best in the Big 12 and good for 13th in the country.

If anyoneís happy to face the Nebraska offense, itís inside linebackers Jamonte Robinson and Sean Doyle, who are free to attack the line of scrimmage in the 4-4 alignment

"Itís a whole lot better for me," Robinson said. "I get to run around, and I donít have to worry about slowing my pace. Itís just full speed to the ball, and thatís going to be key against this Nebraska offense because Crouch goes full speed as soon as they hike it.

"Having those outside guys really helps Ö Theyíre going to make them come back to the thick of the defense."

Doyle has an added incentive against the Cornhuskers after tearing a hamstring last year at Nebraska. He watched from the sidelines as NU sealed the win with its ground game in the fourth quarter.

"Itís kind of funny because I donít think option responsibilities ever changes for a linebacker," Doyle said. "Youíve got the dive, the quarterback and the pitch. You just have to flow downhill and read it. The main thing is stop the dive first if they give it to the fullback and then go from there. This defense is built to stop plays like this."

Reach Dave Matter at (573) 815-1788 or