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1985: The Wagon De-Rails (Part One)

For other seasons, go here.

1985 was the first time I truly started paying attention to college football.  I was seven years old, and while I remember certain events from previous seasons--my dad being very, very, VERY pissed off that BYU won the 1984 national title without playing anybody even remotely good...the Sooner Schooner hitting the field prematurely in the 1985 Orange Bowl--1985 was the kickstart into my life as a college football nerd.  Ironically, it was also the first time I started to pay attention to Missouri football.  Good times.

If you recall (Part One, Part Two, Part Three), 1984 was a year of near-misses.  In seven years under Warren Powers, Mizzou missed bowls just twice; but in a vastly disappointing 1984 campaign, they went 3-7-1, and with fan interest drooping considerably--attendance had fallen every year since 1979's 69,867, down to a paltry 47,790 in 1984--Mizzou felt they needed to make a change.  They looked at coaches like John Cooper before eventually settling on Woody Widenhofer, a Mizzou alum and former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator.  He had Mizzou blood and an undying amount of enthusiasm and charisma, and he was tasked with bringing interest back to the Mizzou program.

Yeah, 1985 was bad.

The theme for 1985 was "Hitch a Ride," referring to what would be known as Woody's Wagon. Mizzou wanted to take advantage of their new head man's charisma by sending him throughout the state in a stationwagon to win back Mizzou fans, one at a time.  Granted, the best way to do that is by winning games, but Woody's Wagon was pretty catchy.  And it was probably more successful than the team on the field.

Charisma aside, Widenhofer landed the Mizzou job on the perceptions of bringing in top recruits and a pro-style system.  The "players' coach" may have trouble winning with the last coach's players, so it wouldn't be surprising to see Mizzou struggle in 1985.  That said, there was certainly some talent.

The quarterback position saw the same battle forming as from the year before: Marlon Adler vs Warren Seitz.  Adler was strong in 1983, and both had their moments in 1984, but neither distinguished himself over the other.  Eventually Woody gave the job to Adler and moved Seitz to wide receiver.

The running attack appeared experienced and strong.  1983 Holiday Bowl hero Eric Drain returne for his senior season, but the big name was sophomore Darrell Wallace, who would develop into Mizzou's best offensive weapon in 1985.  Meanwhile, the offensive line was led by future All-American tackle John Clay, a junior.

Widenhofer's pro-style attack, however, would involve a lot of passing, and Mizzou was vastly inexperienced at WR.  Both George Shorthose and Andy Hill were gone, leaving senior Adrian McBride and freshmen like Patrick Overshown and star QB recruit Ronnie Cameron pretty high on the depth chart with Seitz.  Adler was a decent QB, but he would need some help from this woefully inexperienced unit for Mizzou to succeed in 1985.

Defensively, big changes were in the works.  Only five starters returned, plus Widenhofer was bringing with him a 3-4 defense that you don't see much in the college ranks.  How it would handle the option attacks of teams like Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Colorado, nobody knew.  Returning starters Steve Leshe (NT) and Michael Scott (DE) anchored the line, while Bo Sherrill (SLB) appeared to be the strongest linebacker.  The secondary was quite experienced--Erik McMillan (future defensive star for the Jets) moved to safety, alongside Cameron Riley.  Senior Tony Facinelli was the most experienced CB among a handful of freshmen vying for a starting job; meanwhile, Cordell McKinney, a freshman from E. St. Louis, manned the other starting spot.

At least Mizzou would be better in the kicking game, where outstanding young Tom Whelihan took over.  If he'd been the #1 kicker in 1984, Mizzou might have at the very least beaten Notre Dame (and maybe saved Warren Powers's job?).

Most of the pics from this season are from the immaculate Savitar archives.  Such a wonderful discovery.

Something else would be making its Mizzou debut in 1985: Omniturf.  Mizzou was the last team in the Big 8 to move to artificial surface, and they picked the worst one imaginable.  The slippery, sand-based turf was known as Mizzou's best defensive player for years...unfortunately,Mizzou's offense had to play on it too.

Knowing what we know now, going through this season won't be great from a "Look how good we were!" perspective.  But let's take the journey anyway!

September 14: Northwestern (0-1) at Missouri (0-0)

One thing Mizzou seemed to have going for them in 1985 was a pretty easy schedule.  Yes, they would have to face ranked Oklahoma, Nebraska and Oklahoma State teams; and yes, Colorado was about to rise quickly.  But the nonconference slate featured three winnable home games against mediocre teams--Northwestern, Indiana and California.  For a team with a lot of inexperience and position changes, getting some nice home wins would be a nice confidence boost.

Of course, losing those games would be a major confidence killer.

Mizzou opened with Northwestern, a team that had gone just 10-88-1 since 1976.  That's ten wins in nine seasons, kids.  They did have a sliver of hope for 1985, however.  Dennis Green was in his fifth season in Evanston, and seven of NU's aforementioned ten wins had come in the last three seasons.  He had put together a decent offense--sophomore Mike Greenfield led a pretty potent passing attack--but let's not get carried away here.  NW'ern had opened the season with a 40-17 loss to Duke.

The 1985 season certainly didn't start well for Missouri.  On the Wildcats' opening drive, Greenfield effortlessly led them the length of the field for a touchdown four minutes into the contest.  Mizzou advanced to the NU 5 and passed up a field goal attempt on fourth down, but Marlon Adler was stuffed for no points.  The Wildcats extended the lead to 17-0 in the second quarter--Greenfield went 14-for-16 for 141 yards in the first half--before Adler finally got Mizzou moving.  In the two minute drill, Adler completed passes to Adrian McBride and Warren Seitz, then scored from 5 yards out to keep Mizzou close; it was 17-7 at halftime.

Marlon Adler goes in for the score.  No word on if the Northwestern defender was diving or just slipping on the Omniturf.

The comeback continued in the third quarter.  Tom Whelihan kicked a 35-yard FG on Mizzou's opening drive, and then after a sack of Greenfield at the NW'ern 1 led to good field position, Mizzou tied the score at 17-17 on a 15-yard touchdown run.

It looked as if a bullet were about to be dodged by Mizzou, but Greenfield bounced back.  Both throwing and scrambling, he led the Wildcats on a go-ahead field goal drive early in the fourth quarter, and after quickly getting the ball back, he engineered a textbook, 15-play, 6-minute drive capped by a short touchdown pass.  Mizzou would score another touchdown on a 2-minute drill, but they couln't recover the ensuing on-sides kick, and Northwestern had stolen the victory.

Northwestern's last non-conference road victory had come in Pittsburgh, thirteen years earlier.  But that streak stopped as Woody's Wagon came out of the gates sputtering in a major way.

Northwestern 27, Missouri 23