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

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three

Where we left off, Mizzou had just come crashing down after getting hot through most of October, blowing a 27-7 second-half lead against Colorado and losing 28-27 on Homecoming.  They followed that up with a poor performance in Stillwater.  In two weeks, Mizzou had gone from fighting for the conference title and a major bowl bid to being almost completely dead in the water.

November 11: Kansas (1-8) at Missouri (5-4)

Not sure if this is TD #1 or TD #2 for Gant.  Or #3.  Or maybe #4.

Throughout the history of the Missouri-Kansas rivalry, there have been plenty of instances of underdogs pulling upsets, or one rival adding insult to injury and prolonging a losing streak.  Lucky for Mizzou, as poorly as the last two weeks had gone for them, the whole season had gone that way for KU, so while the former was still a concern, the latter helped Missouri.  For the season, the Jayhawks had only played one team with a losing record, and only a surprise upset of UCLA had prevented them from being winless.  Still, though, this was the Border War (or whatever it was being called then).  Throw out the records, etc.

Or not.  Here's your entire scoring rundown:

  • Q1: James Wilder 21 run, 7-0
  • Q1: Phil Bradley 4 run, 14-0
  • Q2: Earl Gant 11 run, 21-0
  • Q2: Earl Gant 27 run, 27-0
  • Q3: James Wilder 40 run, 34-0
  • Q3: Earl Gant 16 run, 41-0
  • Q4: Earl Gant 30 run, 48-0

Gant and Wilder combined for 294 yards and six touchdowns, Mizzou forced five turnovers and racked up 11 tackles for loss.  In front of 64,263 on Senior Day, Missouri positively destroyed the hated Beakers.  They sat at 6-4 heading into the season finale, and lucky enough for them, a win would put them in strong bowl position despite the untimely back-to-back losses.  Not as lucky: the finale was in Lincoln, and Nebraska was one win away from a shot at the national title.

Missouri 48, Kansas 0

November 18: Missouri (6-4) at #2 Nebraska (9-1)

There was no stopping Wilder.

Set the scene for us, Todd Donaho:

As fate would have it, the schedule maker played a big part in giving Mizzou an exciting, nostalgic, sentimental, revengeful, and upsetting finish to the 1978 regular season.  For the only time in Missouri football history, the Tigers final regular season game was against Nebraska.

And, as fate would have it, Missouri was led by first-year head coach Warren Powers who played football and was an assistant coach for eight seasons at Nebraska.  If Powers could beat his alma mater, Missouri would earn its first bowl game in five years.

While Warren Powers was attempting to knock his alma mater out of national title contention, Tom Osborne was trying to officially lock up the love of Nebraska fans.  The hand-picked successor to Bob Devaney, who retired after the 1972 season, Osborne had done fine in Lincoln, winning at least nine games every year.  But Devaney won a national title in his second-to-last season, so the bar was set extremely high, especially since Barry Switzer was kicking so much behind in Norman.  Not only did Switzer win national titles in his first two seasons at OU, but he also won his first five head-to-head matchups with Osborne.

But 1978 was different.  After a season-opening loss to Alabama in Birmingham, Nebraska had ripped off nine consecutive victories, including, just seven days before the Missouri-Nebraska game, Osborne's first win over Switzer and OU.  Nebraska had moved to #2 in the country and was sixty minutes away from a likely Orange Bowl matchup against #1 Penn State.

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.

Phil Bradley in the open field.

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, 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 imcomplete 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 fourtth-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.

Missouri, on the other hand, had weathered an intense downward spiral at the end of October and beginning of November, and escaped with both momentum and a bowl bid.  Their win over Nebraska landed them a spot in the Liberty Bowl.  Warren Powers' first season in Columbia had brought Mizzou seniors their first bowl trip, and Mizzou's first overall in five seasons.  The 1978 season had begun and ended with unlikely, dramatic, heart-tugging, memorable wins, and while not everything in the middle had gone as planned, those wins would make 1978 one of the most fondly-recalled seasons in Missouri history.

The question was, could Missouri top off the big wins with a bowl trophy?

Missouri 35, Nebraska 31


December 23: #18 Missouri (7-4) vs Louisiana State (8-3)

From The Missourian's gameday article:

Missouri vs Louisiana State.

It's being billed as the battle between two Tigers, as both teams own the same nickname.  And LSU Coach Charlie McClendon is among the crowd that doesn't believe this is just another game.

He says television makes it special.

"This one is for mom and dad and girl friends and next-door neighbors," he says.  "They all can see it.  That's where the pride factor comes in."

If pride is a factor, Missouri probably would have the edge.  Nobody on its 102-man roster has ever played in a bowl game.  M U hasn't been in a bowl game since 1973.  The players are hungry.

"It's an important game for the whole state of Missouri," says flanker Leo Lewis.  "This is a good time to prove Missouri is back."

Warren Powers, recently named Walter Camp Coach of the Year, took Mizzou into battle against an underdog LSU team (Mizzou -7 was the line) led by two QBs--David Woodley (a future Miami Dolphin) and Steve Ensminger--and a star running back, All-American Charles Alexander.  Charlie McClendon, who had played for Bear Bryant at Kentucky (seriously, who in the SEC didn't have ties to Bryant?), was coaching his 17th season in Baton Rouge (he would retire after 1979).  The Bayou Bengals ran a step behind Alabama most of the time, but McClendon had still led LSU to at least eight wins in eight of the last 11 seasons, going to the Sugar Bowl in 1967 and the Orange Bowl in 1970 and 1973.  They had hit a mid-1970s slump before rebounding with eight wins in 1977 and 1978.

LSU was clearly not going to be intimidated by Powers' physical Missouri team.  They had faced heavyweights themselves in '78--they lost 24-17 to 9-2-1 Georgia and 31-10 to 11-1 Alabama--but they had yet to beat a team that finished with a winning record.

Alexander and James Wilder got most of the pre-game billing, but in the end, defense won a game that encapsulated Missouri's entire 1978 season, for better and worse.

it started well enough for Missouri; they took the opening kickoff and drove 75 yards for a touchdown.  Earl Gant took it in from 13 yards out, and Mizzou was up 7-0.  It was 7-3 when LSU made a key mistake--a roughing the punter penalty gave Mizzou new life in a second-quarter drive, and Phil Bradley found Kellen Winslow, playing in his final Mizzou game, for a 14-3 lead.  With the MU defense dominating, Mizzou got one more chance to score before halftime and took advantage.  As was expected from him by this point, Wilder plowed through a series of LSU tacklers on the way to a 3-yard touchdown, and a 20-3 lead with 1:20 left in Q2.  Mizzou actually got another chance to score after an interception, but a holding penalty knocked them out of field goal range, and they took a 17-point lead into the locker rooms.

Strong start, good running game...sounds like the first half of Missouri's season.  Now, it was time to remind everybody of the Colorado collapse.  Missouri's offense went into a shell, and the lead began to evaporate.  LSU finally got Alexander rolling and scored five minutes into the second half.  Mizzou blocked the PAT, however, and the score was 20-9.  Mizzou's offense stalled, and LSU was driving again before Bill Whitaker picked off a Woodley pass.

The fourth quarter started with LSU driving once again.  With the ball on the MU 25, Woodley rolled right out of a shotgun formation, but was hocked down by DT Norman Goodman and fumbled.  Eric Berg, who had already picked off a pass while starting in place of injured LB Billy Bess, recovered.  Another bullet dodged.  With 5:30 left, the defense had to step up again--this time it was DE Kurt Peterson coming up with an interception.

But with Mizzou's offense in hibernation, LSU got the ball back and drove yet again.  On fourth-and-goal with 1:33 left, Woodley snuck in from a yard out, and it was 20-15.  Berg, named Missouri's defensive player of the game, intercepted the two-point conversion pass, however, and LSU was unable to close within a field goal.

Mizzou recovered the inevitable onsides kick attempt, but get this--they stalled again.  LSU used its timeouts and actually got the ball back again with seconds remaining, but one completion ate up the rest of the clock, and as they had in November on the verge of collapse, Mizzou had come through.  It wasn't pretty, but it was a 20-15 win, Missouri's eighth of the season.

Missouri 20, LSU 15


Mizzou had sent the seniors--Kellen Winslow, Earl Gant, etc.--out as winners in one of the most memorable seasons in Mizzou history, but there was no whooping and loud celebrating in the Tiger locker room.  Just a few handshakes, a few hugs, and contented quiet.  Everybody in that locker room felt there were big things ahead for the Mizzou program, and considering how far they had come in just one year under Warren Powers, how could they think otherwise?

Of course, this was about as good as it was going to get under Powers.  As we will read in the future, Mizzou remained strong and competitive--going 7-5, 8-4, and 8-4 over the next three seasons and upsetting ranked teams like Mississippi State in 1981 and Oklahoma in 1983--but the dramatic heights of the 1978 would not be matched in the remaining six seasons of Powers' tenure.  That fact probably makes the 1978 memories even more fond for long-time Mizzou fans that would soon become long-suffering Mizzou fans.

And really, that's what is so great and so cruel about college football.  Every group of departing seniors and incoming recruiting class completely changes the complexion of the program.  You never really know how long success is going to last, and you learn to treasure certain victories and certain moments.  The 1978 season was as full of those moments as any season ever had been, from the goal-line stand against Notre Dame, to the Phil Bradley option run and Russ Calabrese pick six against Alabama, to the whooping of Illinois, to the Q4 Wendell Ray interception against ISU, (to the collapses against CU and OSU), to every second of the Nebraska game, and the bowl win over a game LSU team.  It was, without a doubt, a great season to be a Missouri fan.