When we last checked in with the Tigers, they had gone 0-4 in October, getting crushed by two top teams--Kansas State and Nebraska--on the road, then sleep-walking through a bad home loss to Oklahoma State. They had bounced back to play well against Oklahoma, but they lost just the same.
November 4: Missouri (2-6) at #11 Kansas (7-1)
Knowing you played hard and well is small consolation when you still lose. Mizzou had gone the distance with a ranked opponent the previous week, and now it was time to try to derail what was shaping up to be Kansas' best season since 1968. No matter what your overall record is, if you can upend your chief rival and put a major damper on their season, your spirits will lift. Mizzou almost made that happen.
With Glen Mason and an experienced, athletic offense, KU was riding on high when they traveled to Manhattan on October 28. Based on rankings and stature, this was the biggest KU-KSU game ever. Kansas was 7-0, K-State 6-1 with only a loss to Nebraska. This was billed as a major heavyweight matchup, but only one team showed up. KSU crushed Kansas, 41-7, sending the Jayhawks reeling a bit. They would start slow against Mizzou, and an inspired Tiger team made them pay.
Riding a run-first, run-second, run-third strategy behind Corby Jones, and Brock Olivo, and getting a surprise contribution from backup fullback Antwan Johnson, Mizzou looked strong in the first half. Jones attempted no passes in the first quarter and only three in the second, but the Tigers gashed Kansas for a series of nice gains and took a surprising 17-14 lead into halftime.
As would become a bit of a negative trend for Larry Smith's Tiger teams, Mizzou did not play well in the third quarter. On Mizzou's first possession of the second half, Jones telegraphed an attempted screen pass, and KU LB Chris Jones intercepted it and returned it for a touchdown. Late in the third quarter, with the Jones-led offense drying up, KU struck for their only truly big offensive play--QB Mark Williams found WR Isaac Byrd for a 49-yard touchdown to put KU up 28-17.
It was 35-17 when Mizzou put together some offensive momentum under new QB Kent Skornia. Skornia went 10-for-15 for 99 yards in the fourth quarter and led Mizzou to a score to cut the lead to 35-23. Larry Smith would forgo the onsides kick attempt, however, and KU was able to march down the field for the clinching score. However, instead of trying to eat clock, KU continued to pass the ball. When KU scored on a touchdown pass with 1:28 remaining, Smith delivered this gesture toward the KU sideline:
Quickly thereafter, Jefferson City product Steve Martin was ejected for punching Chris Banks on the PAT (he hated KU more than anybody on the team, plus he said he was being grabbed in the junk for most of the final drive), and a tense game got testy. The following season, Mizzou would direct this anger toward whooping Kansas in Columbia, but for now it was just added insult to the pain of fighting well for two straight weeks and losing.
Signs of life: Aside from Martin punching a Jayhawk? The first-half offensive display with Corby Jones at the helm had to have been encouraging. Also encouraging: two straight solid efforts against good teams.
Kansas 42, Missouri 23
November 11: Missouri (2-7) at #9 Colorado (7-2)
After playing good defense against OU and good offense against KU, Mizzou returned home to face a #9-ranked Colorado team whose only losses had come against Top 10 teams Nebraska and Kansas. They had an explosive offense (they had scored at least 30 points in six of nine games) but a bit of a porous defense (they had given up at least 28 points in four straight games). If Mizzou could get rolling behind Corby Jones, or even Kent Skornia or falling-out-of-favor Brandon Corso, their defense could give them enough of an opportunity to steal a win. Plus, the weather in Columbia (fog, snow, temperature in the 20s and falling, wind in the 20s and rising) was not exactly conducive for the pass-heavy offense Colorado liked to run.
As was usually the case, the Mizzou defense gave the Tigers a chance. On Colorado's first drive, Justin Wyatt came up with a huge third-down sack and forced a missed CU field goal. On the Buffs' second drive, Caldrinoff Easter intercepted John Hessler at the Mizzou 7. CU was getting yards, but not points, and even with the weather in their favor, Mizzou's defense did great in holding a team averaging over 40 points per game to just 7 in 30 minutes. Unfortunately, the Mizzou offense had not managed anything resembling a good drive of their own. It was 7-0 at half.
Colorado, determined to throw the ball, finally got rolling a bit late in the third quarter. A 26-yard TD pass made it 14-0, and unfortunately for MU, that was more than enough. A week after putting up solid numbers against Kansas, Mizzou managed just 230 total yards against the Buffs--38 through the air--and never ran a single play inside the CU 25. It's usually pretty hard to win that way.
Signs of life: A feisty, young defense was establishing a strong bend-don't-break identity that would serve them well in 1997 and 1998. But when a single touchdown is too much for the offense to overcome, it doesn't matter what the defense does.
Colorado 21, Missouri 0
November 18: Iowa State (3-7) at Missouri (2-8)
Throughout the season, just about every unit on the Missouri team had shown flashes. Corby Jones had looked good in the first half against Kansas and a decent amount of the Oklahoma State game; meanwhile, fellow QB Kent Skornia had done well down the stretch against Kansas. Brock Olivo had put together 784 rushing yards on the season, though most of those yards seemed to come against the weak teams on the schedule. The offensive line had paved the way for a couple of great rushing games. A defensive line headed by Steve Martin and featuring solid performers like Brian Cracraft and Justin Wyatt had been solid most of the year. A younger-than-young secondary had turned into both an opportunistic (16 interceptions on the season) and punishing unit, with underclassmen like Demontie Cross, Caldrinoff Easter, and Shad Criss making decent reputations out of hard hits.
And yet, Missouri was 2-8 heading into their season finale against Iowa State. They were 0-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less (chalk that up to "learning how to win"), and it seemed that most of the time only one unit or the other--either offense or defense--was clicking while the other suffered lapses.
Finally, it all came together against Iowa State in a game that would be considered the 1996 season opener. The defense held spectacular Iowa State running back Troy Davis to just 37 yards in the first half, Brock Olivo posted 201 yards of his own, and both the defense and special teams took part in the scoring--Caldrinoff Easter returned an interception for a touchdown, while Clayton Baker did the same with a blocked field goal.
Mizzou was relentless in the first half, taking a 24-0 lead and eventually stretching it to 38-6 before Iowa State finally got going. The final score made the game seem much closer than it actually was--Davis eventually found gaping holes in the Mizzou prevent defense and got to 2,000 yards on the season--but Mizzou finished the season with its most complete performance. There would be hope in 1996.
Missouri 45, Iowa State 31
Youth, youth, youth. Mizzou would move to the Big 12 Conference in 1996, and they would take with them a team that would be both young and experienced. Brandon Corso would predictably transfer in the offseason, leaving sophomores-to-be Corby Jones and Kent Skornia to fight it out for the starting job. Brock Olivo, Ernest Blackwell and Ron Janes would be juniors in 1996, while Devin West would be just a sophomore. The offensive line would return four starters. The defensive line would return Martin, Cracraft, and most of its playmakers. Most of the secondary would return for not only 1996, but 1997 as well (and, in a lot of cases, 1998).
There are different ways to go 3-8. No way is particularly encouraging--it's 3-8!--but by fighting through a rough October and performing admirably against a series of tough teams in November, then finishing off the season with a blowout win, Missouri inspired hope and confidence that, in 1996, the 12-year streak of poor performance might just come to an end.
(It wouldn't, of course. Mizzou fans would have to put up with one more up-and-mostly-down season before the payoff.)