Bill Callahan's ruffled hair revealed more tinges of gray. His face was weathered from the wind and sun.

If you didn't know better, you could've thought he'd just returned from a two-month trek on some mountainside aimed at helping him discover his true inner self (which, if you think about it, really wouldn't be too far from the truth).

This look, though, came courtesy of a tense three hours roaming the Memorial Stadium sideline late Saturday morning and early afternoon. And while it had nothing to do with him getting a better grip on his soul, he should've come away from it with a new appreciation for his Nebraska football team.

No, the Huskers' 24-3 win against Missouri wasn't one for the ages. NU has much wider crevices to navigate and giant boulders to blast to bits before it even catches sight of the summit. But at least it doesn't have to continue its climb from a lower perch.

Go ahead and talk some smack, Husker fans. You're No. 1 (at least in the Big 12 North!) And now where are you going? No, not Disneyland. To Ames, people! Ames!

"I think we all needed this game," Callahan said after NU took over sole possession of the lead in  its mediocre division.

"We," of course, was his Nebraska empire. But those words would have been more suitable for a defense that had been dangling by a thread after three straight sloppy performances.

The Blackshirts recovered from their recent memory loss on the art of tackling to reduce the Tigers' roar to a meow. Of course, in Missouri today, coach Gary Pinkel will surely be roasted for stubbornly refusing to turn over the keys to his playmaking quarterback Brad Smith.

I'm not exactly sure what those folks want, but Smith either ran or passed on 77 of Mizzou's 91 plays Saturday. The fact that he averaged just 3.9 yards per attempt is why the Tigers' offense continually came off the field with its tail tucked.

While leading Missouri last year to its first victory against the Huskers in 25 seasons, Smith averaged 7.6 yards per play.

"Football's simple," declared Nebraska defensive end Benard Thomas. "It comes down to blocking and tackling."

At one point early in Saturday's block-and-tackle fest, Thomas said he introduced himself to Smith.

"I said, ‘What's the scouting report on me?' He said, ‘You're athletic, but we're not sure what kind of motor you have,' " Thomas recalled. "I said, ‘Don't worry, it's a 450, and you're going to see it all day.' "

I wonder if Smith saw a hemi?

Three of Thomas' five tackles were made in the Missouri backfield (where 16 other stops occurred). He also had a share in two of Nebraska's four sacks. Additionally, the Huskers made Smith hurry eight of his throws.

That revved-up attack came four days after senior linebacker Chad Sievers dropped the gloves during a no-holds-barred media session in which he basically called for his teammates to put up or shut up.

When the boat's already rocking, that type of oarsmanship will often leave a crew swamped.

After Saturday, the Huskers might feel like giving Sievers the title of honorary captain.

"It's been tough around here, man, and we poured it out today," Sievers said. "This is the best day I've had since I've been here."

Funny thing about Nebraska's defensive plan — Kevin Cosgrove didn't use any gimmicks to try and coax Smith into a bad performance. Rather, he relied on two base defenses.

"It's not about X's and O's. It's about effort," Callahan said. "It was great to see our guys play the way they're capable of playing.

"I don't think they lacked confidence. I just think they continued to search for the right answer."

And so it goes with Callahan, too.

Nebraska may sit alone atop the Big 12 North, but a week from now,  Iowa State, of all teams, could have a share of that position.

Like Saturday, the outcome of that game could easily boil down to attitude.

"We showed our true colors today," Sievers said.

The Huskers' weathered coach can only hope they're fade-resistant.

Reach Curt McKeever at 473-7441 or cmckeever@journalstar.com.