Mizzou's Greatest, #20: Missouri 35, Nebraska 31 (1978)

The Savitar

Like when Gary Pinkel cancels practice to let his team go to the movies, we're taking a day off from the Walkthrough pieces to catch up on The Greatest.

I almost saved a spot on the list just for that picture. It is amazing. James Wilder just "took that man and threw him down," and without much time remaining, it looked like Mizzou might actually beat No. 2 Nebraska in Lincoln. This Missouri lineman was doing exactly what Mizzou fans all over Lincoln, Columbia, Kansas City, and St. Louis were doing (whether they were seeing it or listening to it on the radio). The play itself made the Greatest list, and justifiably so. But I don't want a single play, or a single image, to distract from the fact that this really may have been the greatest, most well-played game Missouri has ever participated in over its 120ish-year history.

The game had gravity, too. It had a back story. Tom Osborne was deep into his sixth season as Nebraska's head coach, and while the results were perfectly strong -- five top-12 finishes in five years, at least nine wins each season -- they weren't Devaney-level strong. Osborne's predecessor (and boss) had gone 24-0-1 in 1970-71, taking home two AP titles; and while top-12 finishes are fine, they aren't top-six finishes, of which Devaney had managed seven in the last 10 years. Osborne had finished higher than ninth just once (seventh in 1973).

But this was Nebraska's year; Osborne had serious issues getting past Barry Switzer's Sooners -- heading into the 1978 NU-OU game, Osborne was 54-9-3 against teams not named Oklahoma and 0-5 versus the Sooners, suffering tight, frustrating losses in Lincoln (20-17, 28-14) and blowouts in Norman (38-7, 35-10, 27-0). But just seven days before the Mizzou-Nebraska game, Osborne had shaken the monkey off of his back. Nebraska beat Oklahoma, 17-14, in a classic. Now No. 2 in the country, behind undefeated Penn State, the Huskers just had to beat Missouri to claim a shot at the national title in the Orange Bowl.

But "all they had to do was beat Missouri" was not exactly comforting for Nebraska fans at the time. Granted, the Huskers would win the next 25 games in the series, but the Tigers had won in Lincoln in both 1974 (21-10) and 1976 (34-24). Really, Mizzou had such success against Osborne that you should probably break out his above record like this: 0-5 versus OU, 2-3 versus MU, and 52-6-3 versus everybody else. There was no Internet in 1978, but I'm pretty sure the unease was palpable in Lincoln once the post-Oklahoma celebration wore off. Was Nebraska going to suffer yet another letdown loss to the Tigers?

The good news for Husker fans was that Nebraska in no way suffered a letdown. The Huskers played great. And Mizzou played better.

I've cataloged the 1978 Mizzou football season quite frequently through the years at Rock M. It featured an incredible number of current and future stars -- Phil Bradley, James Wilder, Kellen Winslow, and Leo Lewis on the offense alone -- and it featured one of Mizzou's greatest upsets, a 3-0 triumph at defending champion Notre Dame (on the day my mother went into labor with me, no less). Led by first-year head coach Warren Powers, the Tigers had weathered an incredibly brutal early schedule (first four games: at No. 5 Notre Dame, No. 1 Alabama, Ole Mis, at No. 1 Oklahoma) and, despite losses to Bama and OU, reached 13th in the polls with easy wins over Illinois, No. 20 Iowa State, and Kansas State. But injuries were piling up, and Mizzou suffered a pair of the most frustrating, discouraging losses in its history: 28-27 to Colorado at home and 35-20 at Oklahoma State. Despite the individual greatness and early quality, following a 48-0 win over Kansas the Tigers knew they would probably need to beat Nebraska to lock up a bowl bid. And they played one of their best games ever.

For both Osborne and Powers, this was the biggest moment in their careers, and every player on the field played like it. You know I'm one who loves a good boxing reference, and this was as close to a toe-to-toe slugfest as a football game could be. One team score, the other responded. With wind chill near zero, in front of 75,000+, both offenses came out throwing haymakers.

On the first play of the game, NU's speedy Rick Berns raced 82 yards for a touchdown. Mizzou took more than one play to respond, but they drove rather effortlessly for their own touchdown, a 9-yarder by James Wilder. Led by Berns again, NU struck right back to go up 14-7 and quickly added a field goal to take what looked to be a double-digit lead into halftime. But as they would all game, Mizzou responded. On their last first-half drive, Wilder was dominant, accounting for half the drive's yardage. Phil Bradley found a tiptoeing Kellen Winslow in the front corner of the endzone, and the score was a much more manageable 17-14 at intermission.

After Mizzou stalled to start the second half, it was Berns' turn to give NU another cushion. His 2-yard run put NU up 24-14 five minutes into the third quarter. The Huskers could not land the knockout blow, however. Mizzou responded again, thanks to its most recognizable names. Earl Gant for 7 yards. Wilder for 20. Bradley across the field to Winslow for 16. After a busted play, Bradley avoiding pressure and finding Winslow again for 16 yards to the 1. At this point, Nebraska stiffened and stuffed three straight Mizzou runs, leading to the first "play of the game" situation. After a timeout, Bradley bobbled the snap and barely got the handoff to Wilder, who dove into the endzone. 24-21.

Mizzou then went from counter-punching to dictating the action. In a game not remembered for fantastic defense, Mizzou's Chris Garlich was unbelievable. Never mind the 21 tackles--it was the number of huge plays he made that stood out. He stuffed an NU run on the Huskers' first play of the next series, then dropped into the coverage and stepped in front of NU's Junior Miller for a bobbling interception at the NU 31. On the ensuing drive's second play, Phil Bradley burned by, spun around, and plowed through Husker tacklers on a 27-yard run that set up a mean James Wilder touchdown run. Late in the third quarter, it was 28-24 Missouri, their first lead of the game.

Of course, you knew Nebraska was going to respond. After a near-disaster on the kickoff return, when NU attempted a Wychek-to-Dyson style full-field lateral that got eaten up near the Husker 10, NU converted a 3rd-and-long by the skin of their teeth, then got rolling. A 16-play drive culminated with backup QB Tim Hager sneaking up the middle to paydirt. 31-28 Nebraska.

As the third quarter ended, a game that featured 700 rushing yards and over 1000 total yards turned into a defensive slugfest. Well, sort of. Bradley found Winslow for 30 yards and Leo Lewis for 33 yards, and Mizzou had a goal-to-go situation. On third down from the four, a bad exchange between Bradley and Gant put the ball on the ground, and Nebraska recovered. Both teams would punt, then Nebraska had a chance to put the game away.

Four yards at a time, Nebraska moved inside the Mizzou 30 and faced a 4th-and-5 from the Mizzou 27. The Tiger defense was exhausted, and sensing the opportunity to end the game and move on to the national title game, NU went for it. A swing pass to Junior Miller came up two yards short, however, and with under six minutes remaining, Mizzou would get one last chance to mount a touchdown drive. it was almost too efficient.

I haven't been able to nail down their official names, but on the recording I have in my possession, it sounds like the Mizzou announcers for this game are named Steve Grass (play-by-play) and Bob Roe (color commentary). Their call of MU-NU was amazingly homerific (in favor of Missouri), and in the best possible way. They were living and dying with every possession, grumbling about bad calls and Roe (?) in particular whooped after every great play. Here's the play-by-play of Mizzou's final drive, with associated commentary:

  • James Wilder 2-yard run (Grass: "Missouri's got plenty of time showing on the clock, they've also got two timeouts left in this half." Roe: "Let's just hammer the ball down the field, pick up three or four, give it to our horses--Ellis, Wilder--let 'em pick up three or four at a time, get Kellen down across the middle...then score!")
  • Gerry Ellis pounds up the gut for 11 (Grass: "Covered up, Gerry BANGS away at the 35 and 40!" Roe: "Boy, I tell you what. We've got one Nebraska player down. That's what happens every time you try to tackle Ellis or Wilder--somebody might get wounded.")
  • Option pitch to Wilder, who is hit and fumbles...the ball rolls forward and out of bounds (Roe: "Well, we got five yards on that play!" Grass: "That's a good play, coach!")
  • Wilder straight ahead for six yards and a first down (Roe, on replay: "Watch this, watch Wilder. We've said it once, we've said it a thousand times. The guy is just tremendous. He's one of the greatest backs in the Big 8. How he was overlooked for 2nd-team or Honorable Mention, I'll never know")
  • Kellen Winslow seam route for 33 yards (Grass: "Bradley's gonna pass, HE'S GOT WINSLOW OVER THE MIDDLE. COMPLETE! AT THE 20...15...14...FIRST DOWN." Roe: "ALRIGHT, KELLEN. Here we go again! The famous pass--Phil Bradley to Kellen Winslow! We just sent Kellen down with the seam...guy's sittin' right there, behind the linebackers, in front of the defensive backs. A guy that high, you've gotta give him some room.")
  • Wilder straight ahead for 8 (Grass: "Jim Wilder...cover it up, Jim...at the 10...WILDER fights his way to the 6-yard line. Oh I can't stand it...what a football game we've got today." Roe: "I'm going to tell you right now, Jim Wilder. I'm going to buy you the biggest steak dinner you can eat." Grass: "I think he's a vegetarian, isn't he?" Chuckles all around)
  • Wilder literally shoves a tackler aside, pounds ahead into the endzone (Grass: "WILDER!" Roe: "WILDER!" Grass: "JIM WILDER!" Roe and Grass: unintelligble loud noises. Roe: "DID YOU SEE THAT?? DID YOU SEE HIM?? DID YOU SEE HIM TAKE THAT MAN AND THROW HIM DOWN?? Grass: "You will not believe what Wilder did." Roe: "He had a guy wrapped around his waist, he just grabbed hold of him and threw him into the ground like he was a piece of turf!" Grass: "Unbelievable!")

Seriously, just about the greatest play call ever on the touchdown there. These guys were freezing in the press box, and ready to find somebody to plow through themselves. Roe actually started humming the fight song after the PAT went through. Bananas.

Instead of grinding out the rest of the clock and putting the game away, Missouri had taken only seven plays to go 74 yards. That left Nebraska with over 3:40 to try to save their national title hopes. It didn't start so well for the Huskers. Wendell Ray flew in and sacked Tom Sorley on the first play of the drive for an 8-yard loss (Roe called him "Mr. Wonderful"). After a Berns run, NU faced 3rd-and-11 from their 19. Sorley, who had gotten briefly knocked out of the game in the third quarter, threaded a perfect pass on a deep out, finding a receiver at midfield, out of bounds. Still 2:30 left.

No prevent defense here for Missouri. They blitzed a safety on first down (an incomplete pass), then blitzed a corner on second down, when Sorley found Berns on a perfectly-called screen pass. Eleven yards, first down at the MU 39.

With plenty of time to run and pass, NU attempted a delayed draw for four yards, called timeout, then handed to Berns for three more yards. After a Missouri timeout, Sorley handed to Berns again, but Chris Garlich flew through the line and knocked Berns off-track before Larry Lauderdale and Steve Hamilton wrapped him up. The play ended up losing two yards, which set up Nebraska's final chance, a fourth-and-four attempt from the MU 33. Take it away, Steve Grass.

"They've got to do it. If they do it defensively here, the game will be over. They're gonna pass ... deep ... INCOMPLETE!!!" Roe: "Missouri takes over!" Grass: "No flags! There are no flags on the field! Missouri takes over! 1:03 left! Nebraska has one timeout remaining! Missouri can run four plays, and this football game will be over!" Mizzou defenders left the field with their arms raised. Mizzou fans in the stands were hugging each other. The sea of red was silenced, and Missouri was going to win the game.

Some of the best games ever have been decided by a 35-31 tally. OU-NU 1971. Super Bowl XIII (Pittsburgh-Dallas). The score suggests a blow-for-blow game rather than one of crazy plays and weird scoring lines. Sure enough, there have been crazier games just in the three seasons we've now covered in this series (1965: Mizzou 20, Florida 18...1984: Wisconsin 35, Mizzou 34), but none better. This was a well-executed game with the big players making big plays, and Mizzou, traveling to the den of the #2 team in the country in nearly sub-zero temperatures, was simply the better team.

A loss like this one is hard to take. For Tom Osborne, who came just one or two plays short in his quest for the national title game, the loss (and the pressure of living up to the standards that Bob Devaney set) almost sent him running to a new location. After a 6-5 season, Colorado fired Bill Mallory and offered Osborne nearly an almost 250% pay increase to lead the Buffaloes to the promised land. He visited Boulder, interviewed for the job, met the players he would be coaching if he took the gig ... and declined. He decided to come back to bring a national title to Lincoln. It would take him 16 long years.

This was obviously the peak of the Powers era. Mizzou would go on to beat LSU in the Liberty Bowl to finish off the greatest 8-4 season in the history of the world (backhanded praise to the extreme) and would win either 7-8 games for each of the next three seasons before the results dwindled. The Tigers went just 15-16-3 in Powers' last three seasons, and he was let go after 1984, kick-starting Mizzou's football tailspin. But none of that mattered on November 18. That day, on a chilly field in Lincoln, Mizzou took on a great team (perhaps the best team in the country) playing its best and won. It was a performance this list was designed to celebrate.

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