1979: A Fleeting Taste of the Big-Time (Part Two)

For other seasons, go here.  We spent a good portion of last May and early-June walking through Mizzou history, and with the Wall of Excellence in our rearview mirror ... it's time to go back to looking even further in the rearview mirror.

Part One

Three games into the season, Mizzou was flying high.  Their offense was struggling mightily in the first halves of games, but they had James Wilder back at full-speed, their defense was absolutely dominant, and after thumping Mississippi in Jackson, they found themselves ranked fifth in the country.

Reality checks are rather vicious sometimes.

September 29: #4 Texas at #5 Mizzou

If ESPN College Gameday existed at the time, Lee (who was coach of Indiana at the time), Kirk (who was ten) and Fowler (who was 17 and getting ready to go to CU) would have definitely been setting up shop next to Faurot Field the morning of September 29, 1979.  In a game even bigger than that of the previous September, when #1 Alabama came to town to play #11 Mizzou, the fourth-ranked Texas Longhorns rolled into town for an early-afternoon Top Five showdown.

Since winning back-to-back national titles in 1969 and 1970 (they were voted 1st in the coaches poll in 1970 despite losing the Cotton Bowl to Notre Dame), the Texas program had taken at least a small step backwards in recent years.  The Longhorns went 10-1 in 1972 and finished third in the AP poll, but that was their only top five finish in Darrell K Royal's final six seasons.  They managed a respectable 49-18-1 record in that time (obviously that would have been more than a "respectable" record at Mizzou), but Royal retired after the 1976 season, having gone just 5-5-1 that season.  His hand-picked replacement was Fred Akers, Royal's offensive coordinator from 1966 to 1974.

To say the least, Akers' tenure in Austin started well.  Texas started 11-0 in Akers' first season and held the #1 ranking heading into the Cotton Bowl, but they were waylaid by Joe Montana and Notre Dame, 38-10, giving the national title to the Irish.  They had gone 9-3 in 1978, finishing ninth in the polls, but they were ranked fourth in 1979's preseason polls.  A week after starting their season with a lackluster 17-9 home win over Iowa State, the 'Horns faced their first real test of the season in Columbia, and it was pretty obvious why Mizzou fans might be feeling optimistic.

A record crowd of 75,136 showed up at Faurot Field (seriously, think about that for a second -- five thousand more bodies in the stands than were at the 2007 Nebraska game).  Here's the Savitar's great setup of the game:

No. 4 Texas was in town to play No. 5 Missouri in what promised to be a spectacular slugfest between two of the nation's top teams. From Deja Vu to Bullwinkles folks had spent the week partying and pounding their chests over the virtues of the new souped-up Tigers. Missouri was gonna "Lasso those Longhorns" and "Rump roast 'em," by golly. Everybody had become Tiger loyal, right down to their black and gold undershorts.

On Saturday, the Tigers led 75,136 pilgrims -- more than any before in Missouri history -- up the side of Top 20 mountain to catch a glimpse of the other side. Before them lay the land of the top four -- Southern Cal, Oklahoma, Alabama and Texas. The elite.

And the thousands of Missouri faithfuls liked what they saw. When the Tigers charged out through a human entryway of fans and cheerleaders, the sides of Faurot Field rocked with cheers.

...

As the Tigers and their fans discovered, mere emotion doesn't beat the Longhorns.

This was the kind of transcendent moment Mizzou fans dream of, and the Missouri defense responded well to the moment.  Unfortunately, the offense was nowhere to be found.  Despite what had to have been the adrenaline rush to end all adrenaline rushes, Mizzou's O was once again mostly inept in the first half, and it really didn't matter how well the Tigers' defense was playing.  The 'Horns blocked a Jeff Brockhaus punt and picked off a Phil Bradley pass deep in Missouri territory, and the 75,000 Mizzou fans in attendance were rendered mute very quickly.  Texas took an 18-0 lead into halftime.

From then on, it was academic.  There was no second-half rally as there had been in other September games.  Mizzou managed just 164 total yards on the day, and while the defense continued to fight -- Texas ran a ridiculous 52 plays in the second half while playing keepaway from Mizzou, but only managed three more points -- Texas was simply bigger, stronger and faster than the Tigers, and this one was not anywhere near as close as the score suggests.

Mizzou guard Mark Jones after the game: "We got our ass kicked. There's not much else you can say after you get beat like that."

Texas 21, Mizzou 0

---

October 13: Oklahoma State at #15 Mizzou

While I assume most Rock M readers were not in attendance (or, possibly, alive) when Texas romped over Mizzou that season, in a lot of ways the game was like the 1999 Missouri-Nebraska game.  Everybody in both the stands and a Mizzou uniform thought they were going to take out the big dog and make a huge statement ... and not only did they not do that, they were physically dominated and humbled in every way.  In '99, the team responded relatively well to that -- they beat Memphis on the road, then played pretty well against a decent Colorado team in Boulder, and their season didn't completely fall apart until Kirk Farmer's gruesome ankle injury.

So in front of 66,003 fans at Faurot Field, after a week off to lick their wounds, how would a more talented Mizzou squad respond to a humbling experience in '79?

In theory, it seemed to go pretty well.  The Tigers drove nine times inside Oklahoma State territory, dominated the flow of the game, and held an injury-ravaged Oklahoma State offense to just two scoring drives.  In theory, that's more than enough to get back on the winning track and get revenge for a tough loss in Stillwater the previous season.  In theory.

When I say OSU's offense was "injury-ravaged," I'm not sure that covers it.  The Cowboys had lost so many running backs to injury that they had to convert a backup defensive end, Terry Suellentrop, into a halfback the week of their trip to Columbia.  Then, in the first half, quarterback Harold Bailey was knocked unconscious and replaced by walk-on John Doerner.  He would complete just 8-of-17 passes for 83 yards.  Again, this should have been an easy win.  But ...

In Mizzou's first nine trips into the OSU red zone, they scored just one touchdown and had to settle for a whopping five field goals (that leaves three possessions where they didn't even get off a field goal attempt) ... and reasonably steady kicker Jeff Brockhaus made only two of them.  That's right, with Phil Bradley, James Wilder and Gerry Ellis in the backfield, Mizzou made NINE trips deep into OSU territory ... and scored 13 points.  Remember this next time somebody complains that Mizzou's spread offense isn't very good in the red zone.

Still, it was 13-7 Mizzou in the fourth quarter, and with a dominant Mizzou defense having come through all season, the lead felt safe.  And then Doerner found receiver Mel Campbell open over the top of strong Mizzou corner Bill Whitaker, giving OSU a shocking 14-13 lead.  Mizzou got the ball back one last time, however, with just over a minute left.  Lord knows they didn't have trouble moving the ball, and thanks to the right arm of Bradley, who went 21-for-27 passing for 209 yards on the day, they moved the ball again.  With 30 seconds left, Brockhaus came onto the field with a chance for the redemption.  The strong-legged kicker faced a 52-yarder for the win.  Would he pull an Adam Crossett Special, missing chip shots but making clutch bombs?

No.  His fourth miss of the day, and Mizzou's SEVENTH scoreless trip into OSU territory finished the Tigers off.  You know that stunned feeling you had after Mizzou's home loss to Baylor last fall?  Multiply that by ten.  Mizzou, ranked fifth in the country just two weeks earlier, had lost to an Oklahoma State team that had won just nine of its previous 26 games.  The Cowboys would actually surprise many by going 5-2 in conference, 7-4 overall.  They probably were not as bad a team as fans thought they were in mid-October ... but they shouldn't have been able to beat Mizzou in Columbia with second-stringers and walk-ons.  This was a crippling, crippling loss.

Oklahoma State 14, Mizzou 13

---

October 20: Mizzou at Colorado

You know how fans work.  Despite the offense's overall failure opportunities into points against Oklahoma State, Jeff Brockhaus was made an easy scapegoat for Mizzou's home loss to Oklahoma State.  And to be sure, his four missed field goals were unacceptable.  But if everybody else had done their job, then Mizzou would not have fallen to 3-2.  Regardless, Mizzou took a new first-string kicker to Boulder to face what seemed to be a rather hapless Colorado squad.  Ron Verrilli, a transfer from Boston University, took over for Brockhaus and made a pair of 35-yard field goals, easing Mizzou's special teams worries.

Their offensive worries, however, were far from eased.  Already in the '79 season, Colorado had given up 33 points to Oregon, 44 to LSU and 49 to Oklahoma ... but the six points Verrilli sent through the uprights were the only points Mizzou was able to muster until freshman tight end Andy Gibler caught a late touchdown pass to give Mizzou just a 13-7 lead.  He had dropped a touchdown pass on the previous play, but Warren Powers showed a strong amount of faith in giving him another shot with the Mizzou offense in desperate need of confidence, and the gamble paid off.

Down six, however, Colorado was not done.  For just the second time all game, they started to move the ball.  Starting at their 39 with the game on the line, CU advanced to the MU 6, where they faced a first-and-goal (or first-and-game) situation.  As they had against Illinois, Mizzou's defense would have to come through with another goal line stand to preserve a win.  Somehow they did just that, though it took a little luck.  After Mizzou stuffed three Colorado attempts, CU tight end Bob Niziolek strolled open into the end zone on fourth-and-goal ... but dropped the sure touchdown pass.

Mizzou was more than happy to catch a break and move to 4-2, but all in all this was not an encouraging performance.  Mizzou's offense was far too talented to be struggling like it was, but the defense was stout as always.  Without clutch defensive play, Mizzou could have been as bad as 2-4 or 1-5 at that point, but they had repeatedly come through for Powers and the Tigers.


Mizzou 13, Colorado 7

---

October 27: Kansas State at Mizzou

What's worse than losing to Oklahoma State?  Losing to Kansas State.  The Wildcats were just 15-46 since the start of the 1974 season and had managed only one winning season since 1955.  They were the dregs of the Big 8 ... and they lined up and whipped Mizzou at Faurot Field.

It was jarring.  Yes, the Wildcats had a pretty decent defense that year -- in their first six games, they had given up just 17 points per game and allowed single digits three times.  And yes, Mizzou's offense was completely lacking in confidence.  But still.  Mizzou had beaten KSU 56-14 in Manhattan the year before and had beaten the Wildcats seven straight times (only one of those games was close).  Mizzou should have still handled this game with ease, but after Gerry Ellis fumbled at the KSU 7, and after Ron Fellows dropped a touchdown pass in the endzone, the Mizzou defense that had kept the team afloat all year, started to fall apart. They showed just enough cracks for KSU quarterback Darrell Dickey to take advantage, and ... well, if Rock M Nation were in existence in 1979, I'm pretty sure the official recap would have been, "The less we think about this one, the better."

Warren Powers after the game: "I'd like to personally apologize to all the Missouri fans for the way this team has been playing lately.  Right now, we aren't a very good football team, and I'm not a very good coach."

I'm pretty sure it would have been hard to find somebody who disagreed.


Kansas State 19, Mizzou 3

---

November 3: #2 Nebraska at Mizzou

Just five weeks ago, you were the fifth-ranked team in the country.  You had what seemed to be just three big games remaining on the schedule -- home games against top teams Texas, Nebraska and Oklahoma.  Your fan base was as psyched and enthusiastic as it had ever been.  The table was set, not only for a run at your first Big 8 title in a decade, but for a potential national title run.  You were poised to once again become a national power.

And instead, your offense had scored a total of 29 points in four games, you had lost three straight home games (two to what seemed like vastly inferior competition), and at 4-3, not only were your Big 8 title hopes crushed, but potentially so were your bowl hopes.  Remember that feeling we had in 2004, when Mizzou blew chance after chance, lead after lead, and finished with a losing record?  1979 was not far behind that feeling.

Needless to say, this was NOT the time you wanted to have to take on the #2 team in the country.

Or was it?  Mizzou had revived its season and bowl hopes the year before by matching #2 Nebraska in Lincoln blow-for-blow, and grinding out an exhilarating 35-31 win.  Lord knows Mizzou couldn't get things going against lesser teams, so maybe getting a shot at another big dog was the remedy they needed.  They sure played like it ... eventually.

A breezy, mid-40s day welcomed a ridiculous crowd of 74,575 to Memorial Stadium for the first weekend in November.  Though a few thousand of those fans were almost assuredly Nebraska fans, that was still a good turnout considering how Mizzou had played recently.  As was the case all year, their loyalty was not rewarded by a sparkling first half performance.  A loaded Nebraska team, featuring nine players would would garner at least Honorable Mention All-American status, raced out to a seemingly insurmountable 20-6 lead.  All-American tight end Junior Miller and halfback and newcomer Jarvis Redwine seemed too much to handle.

But in the nick of time, Mizzou began to snap out of their season-long offensive funk.  They still couldn't really run the ball (just 99 yards on the ground all game), but Phil Bradley started to complete some passes.  He would finish the game 18-for-28 for 170 yards (not bad against the nation's fourth-ranked defense), and Mizzou would start to come back.  They would score two second-half touchdowns to get to within 23-20, and they got the ball back as time quickly began to expire.  Somehow, Mizzou got down to the Nebraska 11 with just 0:03 on the clock.

Want evidence that the overtime period changed the way coaches coach?  How about this: with three seconds remaining and the ball at the 11, Warren Powers had a decision to make.  Did he kick the field goal and go for the tie, hurting Nebraska's national title hopes but not improving in the win column ... or did he go for the win from 11 yards out?  He absolutely went for the win, and the play-calling was inspired.  Just over 11 months after James Wilder destroyed the Huskers with a vicious late touchdown, Powers called for Bradley to pass to the Sikeston Train out of the backfield with the game on the line.  It almost seems poetic.  Unfortunately, Bradley never got the pass off.  A thunderous Nebraska pass rush swallowed Bradley up at the 18, and time expired.  As would be the norm for the rest of the Powers era (which apparently used all of its good karma in the '78 upsets over Notre Dame and Nebraska), Mizzou fought well against a top team and came up short.  They were now 4-4, having lost a staggering four straight at Faurot Field.


Nebraska 23, Mizzou 20

---

Next: time for a rally.

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