COLUMBIA, Mo. - In a matter of four minutes, Nebraska turned an embarrassing performance into an unforgettable one Thursday night against Missouri.

Thanks to a stunning 20-point outburst to start the fourth quarter, No. 21 NU escaped with a 27-12 win over the No. 24 Tigers at Faurot Field.

Down 12-0 entering the fourth quarter, NU quarterback Zac Lee put aside three quarters of poor play and tossed a 56-yard touchdown pass to receiver Niles Paul two minutes into the quarter.

Ndamukong Suh then helped shift the momentum NU’s way when he tipped and picked off a Blaine Gabbert pass three plays later. It was the first time the MU sophomore had been picked off in his brief college career.

And it wouldn’t be his last. After Lee lobbed an 18-yard pass to Paul in the back of the end zone to give the Huskers their first lead of the night, sophomore cornerback Dejon Gomes jumped in front of Gabbert’s pass and returned it 40 yards.

Three plays later, Lee fended off a strong pass rush and fluttered a pass to a wide-open Mike McNeill for an easy touchdown to give NU a 20-12 lead.

“I don’t think I’ve ever, in the 28 years I’ve been doing this, had a greater win,” offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said. “It was about character and fighting it out to the very end. This is what we’ve worked towards since we’ve all been together.”

Sloppy special teams plays and a lack of tempo on offense doomed NU in the first half, and the 9-0 deficit the Huskers faced entering the second half seemed more daunting than the score would suggest.

Watson said he was most proud of Lee. NU’s starting quarterback completed just nine of his 27 pass attempts through three quarters, and Watson admitted he thought about inserting freshman Cody Green to turn things around.

He stuck with Lee and was rewarded, as the junior completed five of six passes for 79 yards and three scores in the final quarter.

“He’s just got such great character,” Watson said. “He’s such an excellent competitor, and he just kept fighting his way thought it.”

Though NU’s running game struggled for much of the night as well, NU was able put the game away for good with an eight-play, all-run drive that ended with a 5-yard touchdown run by Roy Helu Jr.

As they have all year, NU’s defense did its part for four full quarters and put consistent pressure on Gabbert. They forced Missouri to punt eight times and held Gabbert to 134 passing yards.

“I don’t even have words to describe how happy and grateful I am for our defense tonight,” Lee said. “They did an awesome job, especially against an offense like that.”

Suh was the star of the night. In front of more than 25 NFL scouts on hand for the game, the senior nose tackle collected six tackles, a sack and a forced fumble in addition to the interception.

The Huskers brought an aggressive scheme against Missouri’s spread in an attempt to fluster Gabbert, and coach Bo Pelini said he was pleased with how his defenders executed throughout the night.

“They played hard, and they played well,” Pelini said. “You can say that about everybody that lined up on defense today. We played some pretty good football against a pretty good football team.”

Though Pelini refused to call the win a season-altering event, Watson was adamant that the comeback could be the turning point that Nebraska has long awaited.

“It could be, we’ll see,” he said with a smile. “Time will tell. If we don’t let it, shame on us, because this is the moment we’ve been waiting for.”

maxolson@dailnebraskan.com