Countdown: Missouri Football (1920-2010): #19-17

Mizzou's first truly great team, and two '70s squads that were oh-so-close.

#90-86, #85-81, #80-76, #75-71, #70-66, #65-61, #60-56, #55-51, #50-46, #45-41, #40-36, #35-31, #30-26, #25-23, #22-20

#19: Mizzou 1978 (8-4)

Best Win: Mizzou 3, Notre Dame 0 -or- Mizzou 35, Nebraska 31
Worst Loss: Oklahoma State 35, Mizzou 20

More on this one here, here, here and here.

One of the most storied, revered 8-4 teams in any program's history, the 1978 Tigers -- with Phil Bradley, Kellen Winslow, James Wilder, Chris Garlich, Leo Lewis, Earl Gant, Gerry Ellis, Wendell Ray, and other classic Tigers -- did not compete for a national title, did not win a conference title, did not play in a January 1 bowl, and when viewed from 20,000 feet, did nothing to particularly stand out (other than beating Nebraska for the only time between 1978 and 2002).  But they pulled off two of the most dramatic upsets in Mizzou history, wrecked the national title hopes of two different storied programs, and sans a mid-October slump, played some of the best, most inspired football Mizzou has ever played, against a schedule tougher than any team deserves to play.

Ah, the schedule.  In September alone, they took on #5 Notre Dame on the road (and won), #1 Alabama at home, and then new #1 Oklahoma in Norman.  Ridiculous.  The best Missouri team of all-time may have gone only 1-2 in that stretch.  The schedule eased up in October, but Mizzou began to fade.  After whipping Illinois, Iowa State and Kansas, the Tigers were tripped up, losing 28-27 at home to Colorado because of a missed PAT, a blown 14-point lead, and a dropped touchdown pass late in the game.  Until then, they were well on their way to a Top 10 finish, but so damaging was the loss to the Buffaloes that Mizzou laid an egg the next week in Stillwater, losing to a poor, injury-bitten Oklahoma State team by 15 points.

The slide explains why this team barely made the Top 20 of this countdown, but late-November made up for it.  Mizzou rocked Kansas, 48-0, then traveled to Lincoln to take on #2 Nebraska.  It was a game we've discussed hundreds of times here, and one we will discuss hundreds more times.  It was simply the one of the cleanest, most well-played games in Mizzou history, and Mizzou pulled the 35-31 upset.

The win earned Mizzou a bid in the Liberty Bowl, where they defeated LSU to get to 8-4.  The 4.5 quarters of poor play prevented the team from a shared conference title and, if I'm not mistaken, a bid in the Orange Bowl (in the even of a tie, the Orange Bowl bids went to the team that had gone the longest without a bid).  It is a bittersweet fact of life regarding this great, but flawed, squad.  But few teams are more loved by Mizzou fans than the one that knocked out heavyweights in South Bend and Lincoln, went toe-to-toe with Alabama, and featured more skill position talent than almost any other Mizzou squad.

#18: Mizzou 1973 (8-4)

Best Win: Mizzou 13, Nebraska 12
Worst Loss: Colorado 17, Mizzou 13

Not sure what input our friend Earl Billings might have about this team, but in the league of Mizzou Teams That Were Good, But Close to Something Much Better, 1973 was near the top.  This is a team that, as late as October 22, was receiving first-place votes in the AP poll (okay, one first-place vote); they took out #2 Nebraska at home and, at 6-0, faced a schedule with only one really good team (#3 Oklahoma at home) and one solid team (#17 Kansas) remaining.  Mizzou was not far-removed from the greatness of the 1969 team, and with an experienced team made up of quite a few of the recruits signed after 1969's success, it looked like they were back among the elite programs in the country.  And then they lost four of five to end the season.

Things started off as promising as humanly possible.  Unranked to start the season after an up-and-down 1972 campaign that featured a lot of promise and a lot of bad defense, Mizzou kicked things off by whipping Ole Miss (17-0) and Virginia (31-7) at home, and taking out North Carolina (27-14) in Chapel Hill. They were ranked 15th in the country when they faced Nebraska at home, and they pulled out another one of the program's great wins.

When Mizzou lost 66-0 to Kansas State in 1999, did they come back and beat KSU in 2000?  No.  What about when they lost 77-0 to Oklahoma in 1986?  No (though in both instances, to their credit, they came close).  But in 1973, after losing to NU 62-0 the year before, Mizzou did indeed come back to turn the tables the next season.  And they did it in dramatic fashion.

With the previous year's loss in their heads, Mizzou came out fired up, but against the #2 Huskers, simply being emotional wasn't enough to get a lead.  Nebraska kicked two first-quarter field goals to take a 6-0 lead, but Mizzou struck back.  Led in part by John Moseley's great kickoff returns, Mizzou won the field position battle in the second quarter, and despite the complete lack of a passing game (for the game, Mizzou would complete two of 10 passes for 7 yards and an INT), managed two field goals of their own.  The always clutch Greg Hill booted three points through the uprights with 29 seconds left in the first half, and the 68,170 in attendance saw a 6-6 tie at halftime.

...

With under three minutes to play, Jim Goble lined up to punt to Nebraska.  As he had all game, Goble uncorked a beautiful 50-yarder.  As Husker returner Randy Borg retreated to field the punt, he stumbled and bobbled the ball.  All-American lineman Scott Anderson recovered for Mizzou at the NU 4, and with just 2:35 left, Mizzou had been handed a golden opportunity.

Two handoffs to backup fullback Tom Mulkey were all it took.  Mulkey scored from a yard out, and with 2:03 left, Mizzou was suddenly up 13-6.

Nebraska responded, however.  Sparked by the desperation of the moment, they needed just four plays to move 72 yards.  NU QB Dave Humm found Ritch Bahe for 23 yards and a touchdown with a minute to play.  Tom Osborne didn't hesitate--a tie would hurt NU almost as much as a loss would, so he was going for the win.

On the two-point conversion, the suddenly hot Humm rolled left and threw toward halfback Tony Davis, but Bob McRoberts deflected the pass and Tony Gillick pulled in the game-clinching INT.  Mizzou had executed a 63-point turnaround from the previous meeting with Nebraska, and pulled off one of the biggest miracle wins in team history.

The Monday after the win, Mizzou found themselves ranked 7th in the country.  They responded ... okay.  Hungover, they held off an iffy Oklahoma State team at home, 13-9, the next week.  They hadn't looked good, but they won, and they were able to refocus and keep winning, right?  Of course not.  Instead, they significantly outgained a mediocre Colorado squad in Boulder, but suffered three killer fumbles.  The final one came with Mizzou up 13-10 and driving.  Colorado recovered at the 24, then drove 76 yards for the game-winning touchdown.  Colorado 17, Mizzou 13.

To their credit, Mizzou responded well at first.  They took out Kansas State easily at home and prepared to face #2 Oklahoma.  In front of a then-record crowd of 68K+ at Faurot Field, Mizzou trailed just 10-3 at halftime but faded.  They were outgained 367-108, and OU scored 21 unanswered points in the second half to pull away for an easy win.

And then Mizzou went to Ames and lost to Iowa State, 17-7.

And then Mizzou went to Lawrence and lost to Kansas, 14-13.

They bounced back with an easy Sun Bowl win over Auburn and finished the season ranked 17th in the country.  But 1973 will be remembered as the first in a long string of "What If"-laden Mizzou teams from the '70s.  What if Mizzou hadn't fumbled late against Colorado?  What if they had held on against Kansas?  Mizzou would go 7-4, 6-5, 6-5 and 4-7 in Al Onofrio's final four seasons, meaning this was the high point.  In late-October, it was a lot higher.

#17: Mizzou 1924 (7-2)

The winning score over mighty Chicago.

Best Win: Mizzou 14, Kansas 0
Worst Loss: USC 20, Mizzou 7

The 1973 and 1978 seasons were filled with upset wins and ... well, upset losses.  Led by Mizzou's first All-American, Ed Lindenmeyer, the 1924 season, on the other hand, was filled with nothing but unknowns and new heights.  Okay, and one upset loss.

The beginning of Gwinn Henry's tenure as Mizzou coach saw a step backwards.  After going 13-3 in 1920-21, Mizzou went just 7-6-3 in 1922-23, and Mizzou fans likely had no idea of the big-time football they were about to witness.  From the 1925 Savitar:

Champions of the Missouri Valley Conference.  Victors over Chicago, holder of the Western Conference [i.e. Big Ten] championship. Chosen as the outstanding eleven in the Middle West for a Christmas Day game with the University of Southern California.

There you have a brief description of the 1924 Tigers -- the greatest football team in the history of the University of Missouri, and a team whose record is made up of a long list of outstanding achievements.  The Tigers of 1924 made up the first Missouri team to defeat a Western Conference eleven since the Missouri Valley Conference and the Big Ten were organized; they played before more people, traveled more miles and drew greater gate receipts than any Missouri team in history; they were scored upon by but three teams of the nine they played, and lost but two games, one in their own conference and another on the Pacific Coast, after they had been weakened by a trip of more than 2,000 miles, and Missouri players, as individuals, have received more recognition on the various all-star teams than in any other year in the history of football at the Tiger institution.

That probably sums it up better than I could.  The 1924 season saw Mizzou heading into uncharted territory.  They took on mighty Chicago to start the season -- a team that, in the toughest conference in the country, had managed an 18-3-1 record in the previous three seasons and were coached by some guy named Amos Alonzo Stagg.  Their 3-0 victory was potentially the greatest win in school history to date.  As the Savitar blurb said, Missouri Valley teams just did not even think about beating Big Ten teams in those days, yet Mizzou pulled it off.  After methodically taking out Missouri Wesleyan (14-7), Iowa State (7-0) and Kansas State (14-7), Henry's Tigers were tripped up.  They lost, 14-6, in Lincoln (damn, and Mizzou teams in this piece had been 2-0 against the Huskers...).  It was the last time a team would score on Mizzou in the regular season.  They went to Norman and returned with a 10-0 victory, then mauled Wash. U. (35-0) and Kansas (14-0) at home to close out a wonderful 7-1 season.  They had outscored opponents 103-21 on the season and established themselves as, for but one season, the class of the Midwest (or as they said in those days, Middlewest) ... the best region for football in the 1920s.

(Okay, though they were chosen for the Los Angeles Christmas Festival game against USC -- a game they lost, 20-7 -- they were probably not the class of the midwest -- a team a few hours North rode the Four Horsemen to a perfect 9-0 record and a berth in the other Los Angeles game, the Rose Bowl.  Regardless, this was the best Mizzou team to date.  Their performance would even be eclipsed by the next two Tiger squads, and the enthusiasm generated from these seasons were what led to the building of Memorial Stadium.)

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