Nebraska offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said he was offended by the reporter's question.

The Huskers had just rebounded admirably from a spirit-sapping loss to rival Kansas State. Riding its defense and special teams, and energy from the emotionally charged home crowd, NU had just beaten Missouri 24-3 to take over sole possession of first place in the Big 12 North.

Good feelings had returned to Husker Nation.

Norvell, though, wasn't feeling so chipper early Saturday afternoon after a reporter posed a question that arguably made sense in light of Nebraska's offensive struggles, particularly on third-down plays:

Is it difficult to convince your players they're improving after managing a mere 26 passing yards and going 0-for-14 on third-down conversion attempts?

 "We didn't execute in the passing game, but we did what we had to do to win the game," Norvell said.

Nebraska junior I-back Cory Ross, despite a lingering toe injury, rushed 19 times for a career-high 194 yards and two touchdowns, including a career-long 86-yard scoring dash late in the fourth quarter that sealed the triumph.

Ross also sped 15 yards for a touchdown late in the third quarter on the first play following Andrew Shanle's recovery of Missouri punter Matt Hoenes' dropped snap.

Outside of Ross' production, Nebraska struggled badly on offense, going three downs-and-out on nine occasions and coming up with only eight first downs.

Dating to the second half of last week's 45-21 loss at Kansas State, Nebraska has failed on its last 21 third-down conversion attempts.

"It's painful," said Nebraska head coach Bill Callahan, whose squad is struggling in his West Coast system. "We're going to go back to the drawing board.

"We weren't as effective as we could've or should've been in the passing game."

Nebraska sophomore quarterback Joe Dailey was 4-for-17 passing for 26 yards. The New Jersey native described his performance as "unacceptable."

"I take total responsibility," he said.

In Dailey's defense, there were mitigating circumstances. For one thing, a 23 mph wind howled from the north.

What's more, Missouri featured the nation's third-ranked pass defense, and the Tigers continually harassed Dailey in the pocket (he was sacked three times).

In addition, Nebraska lost its leading receiver early in the second quarter when tight end Matt Herian went down with a season-ending leg injury, apparently a fracture, Callahan said.

Herian caught a pass for a 6-yard gain in the first quarter. NU wide receiver Terrence Nunn (two catches for 10 yards) and tight end Dusty Keiser (1 for 10) were the only other players with receptions.

Husker junior wideout Ross Pilkington had no receptions for the third straight game. He's been slowed of late by hamstring and foot injuries.

Dailey lamented a missed opportunity in the third quarter, when on third-and-15 from Nebraska's 32-yard line, he overthrew wide receiver Isaiah Fluellen, who had a step on the defensive back.

"There were some dropped balls, but the majority of it is on me," Dailey said.

Said Callahan, "The timing just wasn't there."

On the season, Dailey is 98-for-202 passing (48.5 percent) for 1,416 yards and 14 touchdowns, with 13 interceptions. In the last two games, he's a combined 7-for-29 (24 percent).

Nebraska is now 32-for-108 on third-down conversions on the season (30 percent). The coaches prefer to be in the 50 percent range.

One piece of good news for Nebraska: It had no turnovers Saturday.

"If you don't turn the ball over, you'll have a chance in any game," Callahan said. "But we have to do a better job on third down."

Reach Steven M. Sipple at 473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com.