Missouri couldn't have seen it coming.

The Tigers had just one punt blocked in the previous seven games and they were averaging nearly 38 yards a punt.

But the kicking game proved to be disastrous for Missouri on Saturday. Nebraska blocked one punt and returned it for a touchdown in the first quarter and picked up a fumble when punter Matt Hoenes couldn't handle the snap, then whiffed when he tried to kick on the run. That turnover came in the third quarter and NU scored on the next play.

Those special-team blunders, along with an 86-yard touchdown run and a field goal, boosted the Huskers to a 24-3 win against Missouri at Memorial Stadium.

"It was obviously difficult for us. The wind affects your kicking game. The punting game, possibly, is most affected. Two kicking errors like that and the impact is just huge," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. "We also missed two field goals. One was very difficult into the wind, but the other one I thought we were in pretty good shape to do it. Plus, we left the ball on the 4-yard line. That's seven to 10 points.

"Our kicking game was sound until today. You can't make errors like that in your kicking game in a game of this magnitude."

In a game that would put the winner atop the Big 12 North standings, the gusting wind affected kicking and passing, and MU had greater difficulties with it than Nebraska.

That doesn't mean the Huskers were exempt from problems in the kicking game. Sophomore Brandon Massey broke through and partially blocked a Nebraska punt early in the second quarter to set up Missouri's only points on a 39-yard field goal by Joe Tantarelli.

"We were thinking after the blocked punt that we could score some points and get the game going in our favor," Massey said of his first blocked punt for the Tigers. "Special teams were big because of the wind. Points off special teams were the key to the game."

Missouri's inability to establish a ground attack also was a major factor. The Tigers rushed for just 51 yards on 35 attempts

"Obviously, we had trouble running the football and I give their defense credit for that," Pinkel said. "We ran into trouble having difficulty running the football. We have to coach better and block better."

The Tigers were playing without Damien Nash, their leading rusher,  who was suspended this week. Pinkel refused to comment after the game on the length of Nash's suspension.

"And then we got into a position where we had to throw. Their defense played well. They were going to cinch everybody down to stop the run," said Pinkel. "You try to go up top for big plays, you try to throw downfield, and we connected on a few. But we didn't throw downfield enough. We just didn't play well enough to win."

Missouri quarterback Brad Smith said he was discouraged by the Tigers' inability to score.

"There were opportunities missed and I have no explanation for that. It's frustrating when we're not doing what we want to do," said Smith. "We broke a couple of plays,  but we just weren't able to put up points."

Smith completed 24 of 56 passes with one interception, throwing for 277 yards. His favorite target was Thomson Omboga, who had eight catches for 96 yards.

"The wind was a little bit of a factor. They had great coverage in the first half. Sometimes it was there and sometimes it wasn't," said Smith. "Basically, the Nebraska defense was the same thing as we saw in films. They dropped their safeties down about 6 yards and had some people up tight."

Omboga said the wind was just as much a problem for NU but said it made playing tricky, nonetheless.

"The wind was a huge factor. They had the same problems, but it made it difficult," Omboga said. "If it wasn't a perfect spiral, the wind would take it."

The Missouri defense allowed just 235 total yards to the Huskers,  and without Cory Ross' 86-yard TD jaunt, it was a measly 149 yards. The Tigers forced the Huskers into three-and-out punts eight times, held Nebraska to no third-down conversions and the Huskers had six possessions that lasted less than one minute and 38 seconds.

"The defense played well except for one play and we're just going to work to get better," said Pinkel.

Jason Simpson, a junior free safety, led MU with 10 total tackles, four tackles for losses, one sack and one quarterback hurry.

"Today, our punt team gave up two touchdowns and the defense gave up one, so we had a pretty good performance," said Simpson. "Every team has its tendencies. Our coach works 13 hours a day to analyze our opponents and come up with a game plan. We knew we could stop them."

Reach Ryly Jane Hambleton at 473-7314 or rhambleton@journalstar.com