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1978: Powers Starts Strong, and Don't Get in Wilder's Way (Part One)

We continue to bounce around Mizzou history, from good years to bad, back to good.  By popular demand, today we begin a look at the 1978 season.

AP File Photo, via The Missourian

Despite a new coach and a new offensive look, the 1978 season featured everything from the general "Mizzou Football in the 1970s" stereotype: ridiculous schedule, ridiculous upsets, ridiculous letdowns, stars at skill positions, and buzz. Mizzou has had plenty of 7- and 8-win seasons in its history, but despite the disappointments--the season almost ran off the rails in October after back-to-back upset losses--few are remembered as fondly by Mizzou faithful as Warren Powers' first year at MU.

Upon Al Onofrio's firing following the conclusion of the 1977 season, Powers was hired over the likes of Woody Widenhofer (who would interview again in 1984 and get the job), Merv Johnson (who also interviewed again in 1984), Pat Dye (who would, three years later, embark upon a successful--and eventually probation-filled--run at Auburn), Lavell Edwards (who interviewed but probably wouldn't have taken the job--he did, after all, say no to Texas a few years later), and St. Louis Cardinals RBs Coach Joe Gibbs (maybe you've heard of him?).

Powers was just 37 when he took the job--only a decade earlier, he was a starting safety on the Oakland Raiders' Super Bowl II squad.  He had played under Bob Devaney at Nebraska and had quickly gained the reputation as a coaching wunderkind.  After just one year as head coach at Washington State, Powers was hired over some very impressive names in Columbia.

Powers inherited a Mizzou squad that had been, under Al Onofrio, maddeningly inconsistent.  In Onofrio's last two years as head coach, Missouri had gone just 10-12--7-9 versus teams with winning records and 3-3 versus teams with losing records.  Missouri had the reputation of scheduling ambitiously and knocking off a host of top-ranked teams, but for every win at Ohio State (1976), or at USC (1976), or at Notre Dame (1972), there were a couple losses to Iowa State (1973, 1976, 1977), Colorado (1973, 1975), or of course, Kansas (Missouri was just 1-6 versus the Jayhawks).  The upset wins raised expectations, which made the upset losses hurt all the more. 

Plus, Mizzou had gone just 1-7 in games decided by a touchdown or less in 1976-77.  Their inability to come through in the clutch (which, we now know, eventually doomed Powers as well) helped signal the end for Onofrio.  Plus, it showed that Missouri was not too far away from being a very successful team.  And with a newly-expanded (by 10,000 seats) Memorial Stadium and a brutal schedule ahead, Powers and new Athletic Director Dave Hart had to hope that a quick turnaround was in the cards.

Known as a bit of an offensive innovator, Powers dumped Onofrio's I-formation in favor of the spread offense of its day--the veer.  From an August 20, 1978, Missourian article:

Like the miniskirt, the flat top and the jitterbug, football has had its fads.  Recently, it was the Wishbone.  Once, it was the "T."  Before that, it was the shotgun.

Now, it's the Veer that has captivated the college game.

Two running backs split behind the quarterback, each about five yards off the line of scrimmage.  A quick-hitting, versatile offense.  One that provides equally for running and passing.  the potential for explosiveness, yet conservative, ball-control type football.  The Veer.


The "I" officially is dead at Missouri, thanks to new Coach Warren Powers.  Al Onofrio's offense is buried.  No more fullback-up-the-middle on first-and-10.  Hello, option plays.


"It's something we ran pretty well last year at Washington State," he says. "We like the pressure it puts on the defense.  We like the versatility of it.  It makes a team defend the entire field.  What it does is stretch a defense, make them play both the run and the pass."


"We have to throw to make it go.  ... We can throw any number of passes--the drop-back, sprint-out, play-action pass--and we can utilize our quarterbacks in the running game at the same time, if they have the ability to put pressure on the defense."

Seriously, that sounds exactly like the '70s version of the spread.  It also sounds like, from what we now know about what kind of quarterback Phil Bradley was, a perfect match for Bradley's skills.

But the sophomore from Macomb, IL, took a while to separate himself from the pack.  August news stories were dominated by the 4-way QB race that included Bradley, sophomore Jay Jeffrey, senior Monte Montgomery, and junior Paul Miller.  While WR Leo Lewis and TE (and preseason All-American) Kellen Winslow were the more known quantities in the passing game, a large stable of running backs were battling for playing time, including senior Earl Gant, junior David Newman, junior Gerry Ellis, and a JUCO transfer from Sikeston by the name of James Wilder.

The Sikeston Train, down and dirty with the Bucs (via)

The veer looked like a pretty good fit with Missouri's offensive personnel, but what about the defense?  As the season began, it appeared that Mizzou would be relatively strong on that side of the ball.  Senior LB Chris Garlich was the leader and captain, the guy who made the biggest plays in the biggest games.  DT Steve Hamilton was a vocal leader.  But the most talent perhaps resided in the secondary, where sophomore CB and future San Francisco 49er Eric Wright was beginning a strong run with the Tigers, senior CB Russ Calabrese was backing up strong (and crazy) words with action, and freshman Kevin Potter was threatening to make his way into the rotation.

On paper, the team looked pretty solid.  Of course, it did in 1977 too, but poor clutch play and the usual tough schedule (featuring USC and Arizona State in non-conference play) led to a 4-7 record and Onofrio's firing.  Could they break through against a schedule that started with two Top 5 teams (Powers would eventually start complaining about the ridiculous non-conference slates and scale back a bit, among other things dropping an early-1980s series with Penn State) and would end up featuring six games against teams that would win at least eight games in 1978?

September 9: Missouri (0-0) at #5 Notre Dame (0-0)

This reveals my age, I realize, but living in Columbia while my father finished his doctorate, my mother went into labor with me on September 9, 1978.  One problem: her doctor was in South Bend at the time.  It's no wonder that I was born a football nerd--as I was trying to introduce myself to the world, Missouri was giving the defending national champions a run for their money on their home turf.

The last time Missouri had made a trip to South Bend, it was Al Onofrio's second season at the helm.  Missouri had gone 1-10 in their first season and was 2-3 in 1972, coming off of a humiliating 62-0 loss to Nebraska in Lincoln.  All they did was beat the highly-ranked Irish, setting in motion the trend of major road upsets the Onofrio Administration would bring.

Six seasons later, Notre Dame was the defending national champion and a preseason Top 5 team.  Missouri legend Dan Devine had led the Irish to the 1977 national title, and in 1978, his offense returned starting QB Joe Montana and top RBs Vegas Ferguson and Jerome Heavens (a high school teammate of Mizzou DB Eric Wright, and soon to become ND's all-time leading rusher).  Their defensive line had taken a hit with DEs Russ Browner and Willie Fry moving on to the NFL, but their LB corps, led by Bob Golic, was possibly the best in the country.  Devine's team was loaded, and after the 1972 debacle, he would make sure his team did not overlook Warren Powers' Tigers.

Heading into the mother of season openers, Mizzou was not lacking in confidence.  Russ Calabrese suggested that Notre Dame--a 17-point favorite--was "just another team*" and Phil Bradley said they had the offensive talent to offset whatever the Irish tried to do defensively.  Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Powers was telling his boys that all they would need was a field goal to win this game--they were going to shut Notre Dame out.  In the grand scheme of things, Powers probably didn't really mean that, but never say this team didn't take him literally.  It took 47 minutes, but Missouri finally got that field goal.  Surely that wouldn't really be enough, right?

* Calabrese was a loudmouth's loudmouth.  The week before the game, he also stated that he hated Notre Dame, hated the entire state of Indiana, and hated all Irish people.  This came a month after a visit to Columbia by President Jimmy Carter; a few Missouri players were excited about the chance to meet the president.  Calabrese, on the other hand, said he was "just a peanut farmer" to him, and that he was a Nixon man.  I'd love to have seen what would have happened if Calabrese had played in the Internet age.

If ever a team stretched the "bend but don't break defense" idea as far as it could possibly go, it was Missouri on September 9, 1978.  Punter (and fourth-string QB) Monte Montgomery struggled mightily in the first half, and Notre Dame continuously took the ball in good field position. By game's end, Notre Dame would put together nine decent scoring opportunities.

But time after time, the Mizzou defense made plays.  Chris Garlich recovered a Montana fumble inside the Mizzou redzone in the first quarter, then intercepted a pass in the second.  Notre Dame began to drive again, but this time Montana was picked off by Eric Wright (his future San Francisco teammate) deep in Mizzou territory.  In a scoreless first half, Montana (or should I say, "Potentially the Greatest QB in NFL History" Joe Montana) went 4-for-17 with the aforementioned two picks.

The Mizzou defense had clearly brought its A-game, but it only seemed like a matter of time before the Irish took over. Mizzou's offense had been able to generate first some first downs and move the ball in the middle of the field, but they were losing the field position battle.  Usually a defense can only hold onto a shutout for so long.

In the third quarter, Notre Dame threatened even more.  A 19-yard Montgomery punt set the Irish up near midfield, and after a reverse to Dan Stone, ND was at the Mizzou 20.  Three plays and nine yards later, it was 4th-and-1.  Even though a field goal would give them the lead in a 0-0 game, Dan Devine chose to go for it.  When it came to scoring, Devine had an aggressive mindset at Mizzou, and he hadn't lost it on his way to South Bend (via Green Bay).  However, the plays he chose to call remained conservative.  Mizzou knew ND would go straight up the gut in those situations, and sure enough...Montana attempted a sneak, and Mizzou was having none of it.  The fourth down stuff gave Mizzou the ball.

Another crisis averted, Mizzou's offense took the field and immediately turned the ball over.  Gerry Ellis fumbled at the Mizzou 7, and Notre Dame had a goal-to-go situation.  On third down from the 4, Montana sneaked ahead and was barely kept out of the endzone.  Fourth-and-inches...and Devine went for it again.  And again Mizzou was ready.  The awesomely-named Vegas Ferguson took the handoff...and was met at the 4 by Garlich (who would predictably go on to win Big 8 Defensive Player of the Week) and DE Kurt Peterson.  Mizzou ball.  Again.

Again, Mizzou couldn't move the ball, and a poor Montgomery punt set ND up at the Mizzou 36.  Montana found WR Kris Gaines (not this guy) for a long gain to set the Irish up at the Mizzou 3.  Only Gaines, who had clearly read Russ Calabrese's trash talk the week before the game, couldn't resist an opportunity to rub it in and slapped Calabrese on the helmet after the play.  Personal foul, Notre Dame.  Ball on the 18 instead of the 3.

Backed up by 15 yards thanks to Gaines, Notre Dame gained four yards in three plays and without hesitation this time, Devine sent on the field goal unit.  Due probably to lack of use, holder Joe Restie bobbled the snap, and Mizzou stuffed the resulting emergency pass.  Crisis averted, yet again.

As is usually the case, when your offense has missed too many opportunities to score--men stranded on base in baseball, shots rattling in and out in basketball, good shots not finding the net in soccer or hockey, break points wasted in tennis--eventually, your opponent will find a way to strike.  For Notre Dame, in a baffling 0-0 game, their defense finally showed cracks late in the third quarter.

With a couple of screens to Earl Gant, Mizzou moved the ball near midfield.  Then on 3rd-and-10 from the ND 40, Phil Bradley found David Newman for 15 yards.  Three plays generated nine yards, and without flinching, Warren Powers sent on the field goal unit on 4th-and-1 (his quote after the game: "No, hell no.  I wasn't thinking of going for it.").  With 12:50 left in the game, Jeff Brockhaus' kick split the uprights, and Mizzou had an improbable 3-0 lead.

Of course, the game wasn't over.  Notre Dame threatened again, and Mizzou held.  The Tigers got the ball back with a chance to run out the clock, but couldn't.  At their own 29, Mizzou lined up to punt one last time.

Despite all of Notre Dame's offensive talent, for most of the game, their best offensive weapon had been Monte Montgomery, Mizzou's punter, he of a 1-yard first-half punt.  But if you thought recent Mizzou kicker Adam Crossett (who missed a 20-yard chip shot FG in the 2005 Independence Bowl before banging home a go-ahead 50-yard in the fourth quarter) had a flair for the dramatic, Montgomery had him beat.  With Mizzou hanging on by a thread, Monte uncorked a 52-yarder.  Notre Dame return man Randy Harrison, probably as shocked as everybody else in the stadium, muffed the return.  Mizzou recovered, and just like that, they were able to kneel down in Victory Formation and take home the most improbable of victories.

For hours, police guarded the entrance to the stadium so students couldn't sneak in and tear down goalposts like they had in the past.  They left in the middle of the night...and then students snuck in later in the night.

In the end, Notre Dame won the yardage battle (334-288), the first downs battle (18-12), and the overall field position battle.  But Mizzou won in turnovers (+3) and testicular fortitude.  Notre Dame had advanced inside Mizzou's 25 five times and come away with 0 points.  But instead of elaborating further about how momentous this moment was for the Missouri program and its fans, I'll let this September 10 Missourian article tell you all you need to know:

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Black and gold banners were flying high.  Chorus after chorus of that familiar fight song could be heard loud and clear.  Strangers were hugging each other.

Yes, by gosh, those Missouri Tigers did it again.  The coach's name is different, but tradition remains.  It happened against Notre Dame in 1972.  Against Nebraska in 1973 and 1974.  Against Alabama in 1975.  Against USC and Ohio State in 1976.

Once again, Missouri rode inspriation and intensity -- not to mention their defense -- to unbelievable heights.  The result Saturday afternoon was a 3-0 upset of Notre Dame in the lion's own den.

The crowd outside the locker room was parted to make way for Linda Powers, the coach's wife.  As she walked down the corridor, she was fighting back tears.  It was a losing battle.  She began weeping.

Moments later, after a big kiss from her husband, Mrs. Powers was escorted outdoors.  Under her arm was the game ball.

The chant began.

"Defense!  Defense!  Defense!"

As soon as it ended, another began.

"Bama!  Bama!  Bama!  Bama!"

Missouri 3, Notre Dame 0


Next: #1 Alabama comes to town.