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

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
Part Two

All the hype and build-up in the world couldn't save the 1979 season from falling apart in October, as a 3-0 start and a top five ranking were followed by four losses (all at home) in five games.  Now, at 4-4, Mizzou had to put together a rally just to make a bowl game in this increasingly disappointing season.

November 10: Mizzou at Iowa State

Your season is disintegrating.  All of your preseason goals are out the window.  Your offense has struggled terribly despite what seems to be a wealth of talent, and now star fullback Gerry Ellis is injured.  Disappointment is abound.  And now you have to go to 20-degree Ames and play in a wind tunnel of a stadium.  Great, right?

Well for the '79 Tigers, the road was a much better place to be.  The offense barreled out of the gates in the first half for the first time all season, and thanks to the running of James Wilder and Ellis' replacement Terry Hill (they would combine for 152 yards on 32 carries), they built an early lead.  But red zone woes continued to kill the Tigers -- Wilder lost a fumble at the ISU 1, then Bobby Meyer did exactly the same.  Despite chance after chance, Mizzou led only 12-0 at halftime.

Any semblance of confidence for this offense seemed to disappear when they reached the opponent's red zone in 1979, and against Iowa State, something else began to disappear: the lead.  No matter what yardage advantage Missouri had, they led only 15-9 in the fourth quarter when Phil Bradley found freshman tight end Andy Gibler for a 55-yard bomb.  Gibler was caught before he could reach the end zone, and Mizzou again stalled and had to settle for a field goal, but for the fourth time on the day, Ron Verrilli booted three points through the uprights, and in the end, Mizzou won safely.  It wasn't pretty, but in Ames it rarely is.

Mizzou 18, Iowa State 9

November 17: #7 Oklahoma at Mizzou

Since Missouri's wonderful 1969 season, Oklahoma had not lost to the Tigers.  They had won nine in a row, often in dominant fashion, but in recent years, divine intervention seemed to be involved.  The Sooners went 11-1 in 1975 but could only manage a 28-27 win in Columbia; in 1976, they won 27-20 in Norman.  In 1977, OU crept by Mizzou by a 21-17 score.  It seemed Mizzou usually played well against OU, especially at Faurot Field, but they just couldn't get over the hump.

Of course, getting over the hump against anybody at home was a problem for Mizzou in 1979.  Since beating San Diego State in the season opener, Mizzou had lost four straight at the supposedly friendly confines of Faurot Field.  Losses to #4 Texas and #2 Nebraska were excusable -- especially the NU loss, a 3-point affair in which Mizzou went for the touchdown on the game's final play instead of settling for a tie -- but losses to Oklahoma State and Kansas State?  Mizzou seemed to tense up with the game on the line at home, while thriving (3-0) on the road.  It was just an odd, odd season.

Even though Mizzou's 5-4 season had not turned out as they had hoped, it goes without saying that a win over OU would alleviate quite a bit of the disappointment, and it was rather evident that Mizzou came to play.  In the second half of the Nebraska game and the first half of the Iowa State game, the Tigers had shown that their offense was slowly breaking out of its season-long funk, and they generated scoring opportunity after scoring opportunity that afternoon against a strong OU defense.  Seven times, they advanced the ball well into Oklahoma territory, and unlike in previous games, ill-timed turnovers were not a significant issue.  Phil Bradley rushed and threw for a combined 295 yards.

And yet, missed opportunities still killed Mizzou.  Heading into the fourth quarter, Oklahoma led 24-16 on the power of both a) a ridiculous day from defending Heisman winner BIlly "BOOOMER!" Sims, who broke off a 70-yard touchdown at one point and finished the game with 282 yards on 36 carries, and b) two missed field goals and a missed PAT from previously reliable Ron Verrilli.  (Verrilli, you'll remember, replaced Jeff Brockhaus as Mizzou's starting kicker after Brockhaus missed four field goals against Oklahoma State.)  With steady kicking, the game would have been 24-23.

Regardless, Mizzou kept right on moving the ball.  With ten minutes left, Bradley unleashed his prettiest run of the year, a 33-yard option keeper, and Mizzou was within 24-22.  On the two-point conversion, Bradley found his new favorite target, Andy Gibler, for the tie ... but Gibler couldn't hold on.  No matter!  Yet another scoring opportunity followed.

As the Mizzou defense came up big, Mizzou got the ball back late and, as they had all day, got moving.  They advanced to the Oklahoma 20 with just 2:20 left but stalled.  It was time for Verrilli to come through.  SURELY, after the heartbreak of the Oklahoma State game, and the first 58 minutes of the Oklahoma game, special teams would deliver for Mizzou.  They had been oh so close to greatness in 1979, and this was one final opportunity ...

... no. The kick missed. Of course it did.  In front of some of its best home crowds ever, Mizzou had lost five straight in Columbia, and OU escaped by the skin of their teeth yet again.

Oklahoma 24, Mizzou 22

---

November 24: Mizzou at Kansas

Here's the intro to a great MU-KU recap in the Savitar:

Psychologists say the best way to relieve frustration is to find an outlet. Scream into a pillow, tear apart a phone book, that sort of thing.

Or, if you're the Missouri Tigers, beat Kansas so badly they think they've been through Dunkirk rather than a football game. This is exactly what the Tigers did in the final game of the season. After a heartbreaking loss to Nebraska and a season marred by dropped passes and missed extra points, the Tigers had frustration to spare. When they took the field in Lawrence, it was time to atone for all the bad memories. It was time to make the rival Jayhawks pay the price for what had been a dreary season.

Of course, this being Missouri in 1979, they did not necessarily start in amazing fashion against a Kansas squad that had won just seven of its past 32 games.  The defense was dominant yet again (KU would rack up just 150 yards on the day), but the offense was only able to put together two first-half scoring drives and a 14-0 lead.  They tacked on another touchdown in the third quarter and looked to be coasting to an easy, nonchalant win to clinch a winning record at 6-5.

Then the fourth quarter happened.

After a long season of missed opportunities, Mizzou capitalized on opportunities as quickly as they could create them.  They would score five touchdowns in the fourth quarter.  Gerry Ellis, playing in potentially his final game as a Tiger, and James Wilder combined for 205 rushing yards, and when backup linebacker Van Darkow picked off a pass and took it in for a touchdown, an easy win had become a complete and total laugher.  Mizzou finished with 429 yards of offense, and took out a season's worth of frustration with a 48-point win.

And then the season got a bit better. A 6-5 record in 1979 was not likely to generate a bowl bid -- that's just not the way things worked then.  Only 15 bowls existed, and the Big 8 would only send three teams to the football postseason.  But Mizzou was chosen for a Hall of Fame Bowl bid over, among other teams, a surprising 7-4 Oklahoma State team that had defeated them a couple of months earlier (who says bowl selections don't favor Mizzou??).  The seniors who had visions of greatness for 1979 would get one final chance suit up and forget the disappointments of October and November.

Mizzou 55, Kansas 7

---

December 29: Hall of Fame Bowl - Mizzou vs #16 South Carolina

In Mizzou's last trip to Birmingham, they had produced one of their most stunning upsets -- a 20-7 domination of #2 Alabama.  Four years later, they didn't face down quite the same opportunity, but it was opportunity nonetheless.  After a season of near-misses and one of the most disheartening Octobers in Mizzou history (and there are plenty to choose from), Warren Powers' Tigers got a chance to take on a ranked team in a stadium (Legion Field) that had produced good memories in the past, and they did not pass up the chance to create a few good memories to lead into 1980.

South Carolina had gotten to #16 in the country powered by the legs of George Rogers, whose 1,681 yards both raised his profile for a 1980 Heisman run.  Since being dominated by North Carolina in the season opener, the Gamecocks had gone 8-2 with losses to just #14 Notre Dame (18-17) and #7 Florida State (27-7), and wins over five teams that would finish with winning records -- Western Michigan, Georgia, Oklahoma State, N.C. State, Wake Forest, and Clemson.  They faced a daunting schedule and half-conquered it, and they had defeated teams better than Missouri in 1979.

It was 50 degrees and rainy at kickoff, and as was typical for Mizzou, they did not start particularly fast.  South Carolina surprised Mizzou with a no-huddle look on their opening possession, and after Rogers drove them down the field, Garry Harper found Zion McKinney for a 20-yard score.  Less than four minutes into the game, it was 6-0 South Carolina (they attempted a surprise two-point conversion and failed).  That was all the Mizzou defense would allow for a while, but the offense couldn't mount much of a challenge.

It was still 6-0 midway through the second quarter when Mizzou finally struck with a sustained drive.  They went 82 yards but stalled inside the S.C. 10.  Shaky Ron Verrilli's 22-yard field goal cut the 'Cock lead to 6-3, but it wouldn't stay that way for long.  South Carolina fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and Mizzou's Johnnie Poe came up with the recovery.  The very next play, David Newman caught a 28-yard Phil Bradley pass for Mizzou's first touchdown, and after a rather stagnant first 25 minutes, Mizzou had scored 10 points in 14 seconds to take a 10-6 lead.

That score also wouldn't last long; South Carolina quickly had to punt after a huge sack of Harper backed them up to their 5.  In a year where special teams rarely benefited the Tigers -- a blocked punt for touchdown all but ended the Texas game, they missed four field goals against Oklahoma State, they missed another three against Oklahoma -- it allowed them to seize control of the Hall of Fame Bowl.  The Gamecocks' punter, standing in his own wet endzone, unleashed a duck that only managed to get to the SC 30-yard line.  Seven plays later, Bradley plunged in from a yard out, and after allowing the favored Gamecocks to hold steady for much of the first half, they took a commanding 17-6 lead into halftime.

Of course, SC really was a good team, and George Rogers really was a good back.  After being hemmed in (and popped down!) after the game's opening drive, Rogers got going again in SC's first drive of the second half.  Harper capped a 62-yard scoring drive with an 11-yard scramble, then found McKinney in the endzone once again for the two-point conversion.  The Gamecocks were back within three points, at 17-14.

It was win time in Birmingham -- the next score would dictate how the rest of the game played out, and after a Mizzou punt, the Tiger defense made its move.  Linebacker Eric Berg, the defensive MVP of the 1978 Liberty Bowl, stepped up huge once again.  He picked off a Harper pass and returned it inside the SC 30, a play that earned him defensive MVP for the second straight bowl game (just call him the Tony Temple of the Mizzou defense).  A few plays later, senior Gerry Ellis broke through the line and scored from 11 yards out.  He would end up with 41 yards on 17 tough carries, and Mizzou would take a comfortable 24-14 lead.

The fourth quarter was all about playing keep away.  Though Rogers would end up with 133 yards on 25 carries, and Harper would complete 13 of 19 passes, the Gamecocks never seriously threatened again.  James Wilder and his 95 rushing yards helped eat up much of the fourth quarter (he would miss out on Offensive MVP honors, which went to Bradley), and amid the raindrops and 62,000 spectators in Birmingham, Mizzou won by 10.

Clearly they should have played more games at Legion Field.


Mizzou 24, South Carolina 14

---

Summary

For the game, Mizzou outgained South Carolina by a 281-263 margin, and they took advantage of the types of special teams miscues that had doomed them much of the season.  It was a sweet ending to a rather bitter season.  Mizzou's seniors went out as winners of their second bowl game in as many years, and for those who weren't still scarred by the series of heart-breaking home losses, there was plenty of reason for optimism in 1980.  The offensive line had a budding star in Brad Edelman and an emerging threat at tight end in Andy Gibler (dropped 2-point conversion against OU aside), while a dominant defense would again return a wealth of talent, particularly at defensive end and defensive back.

Of course, the main reason for hope was in the offensive backfield.  Both Phil Bradley and James Wilder would return for their senior seasons, and while they did not do much to build on their already-strong reputations in 1979, they would have plenty of opportunity to redeem themselves in the new decade.  Mizzou would be ranked #17 in the preseason and take on a rather manageable non-conference slate -- New Mexico and Illinois would come to town, followed by a trip to San Diego State and a huge home game against Penn State (preseason #18) -- and take on a Big 8 that would lose quite a bit of talent across the board.  Only Oklahoma (preseason #5) and Nebraska (preseason #7) remained strong in 1980, and at the very least Mizzou had a great opportunity to once again assert themselves as leaders of the Big 8's second tier.

Almost no program in the country has faced down as many "What If's" as Missouri has over the years, but 1979 was rough even for Mizzou fans.  Huge crowds came to watch Mizzou barely lose, time and again, and Mizzou had to live with the fact that, if they had just figured out how to be four points better in 1979, they'd have been looking at a 10-2 record or better.  We always think of 1976 as one of the bigger "tease" years in Mizzou history -- that was the year they beat both #8 USC and #2 Ohio State on the road, but lost to Iowa State and Kansas at home and went just 6-5 -- but 1979's near misses and What If's nearly trump that season as well.  It was a rough go, but Mizzou still managed to further its reputation as both a place where big-time football would be embraced, and a team that was not too far away from greatness.

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