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Countdown: Missouri Football (1920-2010): #4

Teams #90-#10
Team #9: 1939
Team #8: 1961
Team #7: 1968
Team #6: 1941
Team #5: 1965

Today's team was one of the most explosive in Missouri history, a team that was one upset loss from a shot at the national title.

#4: Mizzou 1969 (9-2)

Best Win: Mizzou 17, Nebraska 7 -or- Mizzou 44, Oklahoma 10
Worst Loss: Colorado 31, Mizzou 24

When Dan Devine came to Columbia before the 1958 season, he set about doing two things: a) building the program's overall athleticism, and b) winning with what he had.  He accomplished both.  In just his third season, he had Mizzou ranked third in the country.  Throughout the decade of the 1960s, he continued to pull in stronger and stronger athletes, and the results were obvious.  Mizzou was one of the most consistently strong programs in the country.  But approaching his 12th season in Columbia*, Devine had not yet gotten Mizzou all the way back to the top of the heap.  The 1969 team gave him his best chance to do just that.

* Just as a side note, Gary Pinkel is now entering his tenth season in Columbia.  Tenth!  When I began learning about the Faurot and Devine eras, it always seemed like both of them were here forever.  Now, Pinkel is only three seasons away from catching Devine in terms of longevity.  Just a bit startling, is all.

Even despite the loss of Roger Wehrli, who was an NFL rookie embarking on a Hall of Fame career, Missouri's athleticism and explosiveness was nearly unmatchable throughout the rest of the country.  They had finished the 1968 season with a spark, handing Bear Bryant the worst loss of his Alabama career in a 35-10 whipping at the Gator Bowl.  In 1969, they would embark on one of the most explosive offensive seasons in school history.  Quarterback Terry McMillan returned for his senior season, and the weapons at his disposal were staggering: Joe Moore and perpetually underrated Jon Staggers returned in the backfield, and Mel Gray was potentially the most explosive receiver in the country.  Mizzou would unleash a late-season streak of offense that not even the 2008 team can match.  They began the season ranked 10th and finished it ranked even higher.

Of course, it all almost fell apart right at the start of the season. As with the near-loss to Illinois in 2007, Mizzou almost fell in the opener, needing last-second heroics to survive.  Against an Air Force squad that was good enough to find itself ranked a few weeks later, Mizzou did not play tremendously well -- they drove consistently but always had to settle for field goals; but they still found themselves leading 16-10 with under a minute left.  They had Air Force pinned at their own 22, and it looked like they would survive.  Then Air Force quarterback Gary Baxter completed an improbable 56-yard pass (against a Dan Devine defense!) to the Mizzou 22.  The very next play, Baxter found receiver Charlie Longnecker (best. name. ever.) for a touchdown.  Mizzou suddenly trailed 17-16 with just 32 second left.

But in a show of resilience few would have managed, Mizzou immediately responded.  From his 18, Terry McMillan found John Henley for 56 yards on Mizzou's first play, and after two short runs, Henry Brown kicked his fourth field goal of the day and Mizzou won, 19-17.  Whew.

This near-miss succeeded in providing a "scared straight" moment for the Tigers.  After pummeling Illinois, 37-6, at Busch Stadium (Joe Moore rushed for 191 yards), the schedule got much more difficult, and Mizzou was ready.  No. 9 Mizzou headed to the Big House to face No. 13 Michigan, and they won in a massacre.  The third game of Bo Schembechler's Michigan career was, as he put it, "a nightmare, and I wouldn't have believed it unless I was there."  Mizzou forced four turnovers in the second quarter alone (Dennis Poppe was responsible for two), and after two short touchdowns by Ron McBride and Jon Staggers, Mizzou put the game out of reach late in the first half when, after three great passes, McBride scored from one yard to get Mizzou a startling 24-3 halftime lead.  Michigan cut the lead to 24-17 in the third quarter, but Mizzou's Mike Bennett blocked a Wolverine punt early in the fourth quarter to set up a field goal, then Joe Moore ripped off a 62-yard touchdown run.  Mizzou won 40-17 -- an unheard-of margin against a Schembechler team -- and moved to 7th in the AP poll.

The schedule didn't let up.  Mizzou returned home to take on No. 20 Nebraska, a team that would finish 9-2 and ranked 11th in the country.  Despite the letdowns against Air Force, Mizzou had a great defense, and they showed it against the Huskers.  Nebraska rushed for just 36 yards on 38 attempts and managed just one touchdown, on a fluky, early-Q3 touchdown; Nebraska running back Jeff Kinney took a dump-off from Jerry Tagge, and after two Mizzou players collided, Kinney rumbled 77 yards to paydirt.  Take that one play out of the equation, and Nebraska managed 191 yards on 79 plays.  Meanwhile, Terry McMillan found Mel Gray for 69 yards on the game's second play, and his 7-yard touchdown pass to Tom Shryock gave Mizzou all the scoring they needed in a 17-7 win.

Now sixth in the country, Mizzou welcomed Oklahoma State to Faurot Field for Parents' Day and came away with a 31-21 win.  It was a sloppy affair, but they survived; Joe Moore ran for 121 yards on a muddy track.

Now fifth in the polls, Mizzou was starting to sniff a title opportunity.  Of their remaining opponents, only No. 11 Oklahoma and (surprisingly) No. 18 Kansas State were ranked, and two of the four teams above the Tigers in the polls -- No. 2 Texas and No. 4 Arkansas -- would have to play each other at the end of the season.  If they could keep winning, they would find themselves with a wonderful shot at the title that eluded them in 1960.

Unfortunately, like so many other Mizzou teams over the years, the Tigers couldn't avoid that single landmine.  This season, it came in the form of a seemingly humdrum trip to Boulder.  Colorado was 3-2, though both losses were quite respectable -- they had lost at Penn State (who would finish 11-0) and at Oklahoma.  They would go on to win five of six to end the season, finishing 8-3 with a Liberty Bowl win over Alabama; but nobody knew any of that at the time.  This seemed like a tough-but-winnable game.  It was not.  Colorado's Bob Anderson rushed for 132 yards and two touchdowns, becoming CU's all-time rushing and scoring leader in the process; meanwhile, Joe Moore, 4th-leading rusher in the country at the time, managed just 11 first-half yards.  The Buffaloes built a 24-10 halftime lead, but Mizzou would bounce back.  A 1-yard McMillan sneak got Mizzou to within seven, and a 13-yard McMillan-to-John Henley pass tied the game.  National title contenders often have to survive a harrowing road trip like this one, and it looked like Mizzou might have enough juice to take the game.  But Anderson scored a second touchdown, and with Mizzou consistently threatening, the Buffs intercepted two late passes to win a heartbreaker, 31-24.

The last thing you want to do immediately after a tough upset loss, one that cost you your spot in the national title hunt, is face a hungry, hot, up-and-comer.  Kansas State was coming off of potentially the biggest win in their history.  Quarterback Lynn Dickey and his explosive offense has just mauled No. 11 Oklahoma, 59-21, and found themselves ranked 12th in the country.  Their only blemish had been a tight, 17-14 loss to a great Penn State team, and a win over Missouri would put them in the driver's seat for the conference title.

KSU came to Columbia with a 5-1 record. To put that in perspective, they had won just six games combined from 1963-67.  They had gone a respectable 4-6 in 1968, but their 1969 start was just as unexpected and impressive as what they accomplished in the early-1990s.  But to Missouri's credit, they bounced back quickly from the setback in Boulder and got rolling early in what would be one of the most exciting games in Missouri (and Kansas State) history.  (In fact, Big 8 commissioner Wayne Duke called the game the conference's "most exciting ever" afterward.)  Terry McMillan found Jon Staggers for a 19-yard touchdown early, and after forcing a K-State punt, Mizzou scored again on a McMillan-to-Tom-Shryock pass.  K-State responded with a touchdown of their own, but a missed PAT made the score 14-6; Staggers, in his finest hour as a Missouri Tiger, then found Mel Gray on a halfback pass, giving Mizzou a 21-6 halftime lead.

Then the fireworks really began.  Kansas State scored on a long bomb early in the second half, but Staggers returned the ensuing kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown.  28-12 Mizzou.  Then K-State scored twice in seven seconds.  They drove 80 yards for a score to make it 28-18, then caught Mizzou sleeping on an onside kick.  Here's how Bob Broeg described it in Ol' Mizzou: A Story of Missouri Football:

Kicker Max Arreguin bent over as if to tie his shoelace. As he did, Missouri relaxed. Rushing up from an angle Wildcat Bob Scott slanted an onside kick recovered by teammate Mike Kuhn at the MU 37.

Not sure that would be legal today, but it worked.  The very next play, Dickey found Charley Collins for a 37-yard touchdown, and in less than ten seconds, Mizzou's lead had been cut from 16 to 4 (28-24 ... thank goodness they couldn't succeed on 2-point conversions).  Mizzou quickly punted, and K-State responded with a four-play, 80-yard drive to take the lead, 31-28.

With all the momentum going against them, Mizzou took a chance, either due to aggressiveness or desperation.  McMillan went long to John Henley, and the gamble succeeded -- Henley caught the ball and was taken down at the KSU 16.  After a 15-yard pass to Staggers, Ron McBride plunged in from a yard out.  This time it was Henry Brown's turn to miss a PAT, but Mizzou led, 34-31.  The Mizzou defense finally began to step up; they forced a punt, which Staggers returned 40 yards to the KSU 5.  On fourth-and-goal from the 1, McMillan scored on a ballsy bootleg.  41-31.

But of course Kansas State was not through.  Against a hobbling Mizzou secondary, Dickey threw his fourth touchdown pass to get KSU within three with 7:23 left.  The Wildcats got the ball back quickly, but the Mizzou pass rush began to close in.  They forced a fumble, recovered by co-captain Sam Adams; then Jerry Boyd recorded Mizzou's third interception of the afternoon, this one coming with under a minute left.  It was time to exhale.  Mizzou had won an unbelievable shootout, 41-38.

When all was said and done, Dickey had thrown for a conference record 411 yards, and Mizzou had posted an extraordinarily balanced 237 yards rushing (Moore had 144) and 227 yards passing.  Staggers threw a touchdown pass, caught a touchdown pass, scored on a kickoff return, and almost scored on a punt return.  It was an unbelievable test of wills for both teams, and neither responded well the next week.  K-State was upset by Oklahoma State, setting them off on a crushing four-game losing streak to end the season (they finished 5-5, missing out on even a bowl game, much less a conference title); meanwhile, Mizzou quickly let Oklahoma go up by double digits.

Both the Mizzou team and the crowd of 61,000 seemed to be suffering a bit of a hangover early on.  Oklahoma's great Steve Owens set the NCAA record for career touchdowns early in the second quarter to give the No. 20 Sooners a 10-0 lead.  But this resilient Mizzou team eventually gathered itself.  Henry Brown kicked a 21-yard field goal with 5:30 remaining in the half to get Mizzou within a touchdown, then Mizzou exploded.  They would score 37 points over the next 21 minutes.  McMillan to Gray for a 24-yard touchdown.  Joe Moore for a 22-yard touchdown (and a 17-10 halftime lead).  More McMillan, more Gray.  When Owens fumbled a kickoff and Dan Borgard recovered it in the endzone, it made the score, amazingly, 37-10.  They would tack on a garbage time score to make the final 44-10.  McMillan threw for 312 yards and three touchdowns, blazing past Paul Christman's 30-year old, single-season passing record in the process, and Gray caught six passes for 171 yards and two touchdowns.  Instead of crumbling after the Colorado loss, Mizzou had scored 85 points and beaten two ranked teams.

With Mizzou on this kind of roll, it was almost unfair to unleash them on the less-than-impressive defenses of Iowa State and Kansas to finish the season.  Mizzou coasted to an easy 40-13 win in Ames, throwing for 309 yards and rushing for 229 (that would be like 409 passing yards and about 280 rushing yards today).  Gray caught a bomb from McMillan and the rout was on.  But amazingly, the Tigers were holding something in reserve for their trip to Lawrence the next week.

On a blustery, late-November day in Lawrence, Mizzou took their ridiculous offensive prowess to a new level.  It's fun to say that Missouri and Kansas combined for a Big 8 record 90 points that day; it's even more fun to say that Missouri accounted for 69 of them.  In front of a regional television audience, Mizzou scored on long plays and short ones.  Gray caught touchdown passes of 68 and 28 yards and scored on a 19-yard end-around as well.  Joe Moore ripped off a 53-yard touchdown, while John Staggers' (18 yards) and McMillan's (16) touchdown runs were downright puny in comparison.

What was then the biggest win in the history of the MU-KU rivalry took on an even more memorable slant when Kansas coach Pepper Rodgers joked after the 69-21 massacre that, with things getting so bad on the scoreboard, "I gave Dan [Devine] the peace sign, and he gave half it back to me."

This amazing game wrapped up a four-game stretch in which Mizzou scored 194 points (48.5 per game), something they would not again match until early in the 2008 season, when they scored 267 points (53.4 per game) to start the year.  Of course, the 2008 team did it against a stretch of less than impressive (Nebraska aside) opponents, in an era with bigger offensive numbers.  The 1969 team did it against four conference foes.  Advantage: 1969.

When all was said and done, Mizzou had destroyed their own record books.  They scored 362 points, easily blowing by the the record of 308 set in 1948.  They gained 4,517 yards (2,463 rushing, 2,044 passing).  Joe Moore rushed for 1,312 yards (previous high: 1,098 by Bob Steuber).  Mel Gray produced 705 receiving yards on just 26 catches (a sickening 27.1 yards per catch).  Terry McMillan threw for 1,963 yards and 18 touchdowns.  These were just devastating numbers in 1969, and they're still rather impressive 40 years later.

I mention all of these offensive records now because, well, the offense did not really play much of a positive role in Mizzou's final game, their first Orange Bowl in nine years.  Against undefeated No. 2 Penn State, who was still reeling from Richard Nixon's pronouncement of Texas as the national champion before the bowl games were even played, Mizzou was shut down.  Or, perhaps more accurately, Mizzou shut themselves down with killer mistakes.  Were it not for a single ill-timed fumble, however, their defense more than made up for the sudden lack of offensive prowess.

(Of course, you can't blame Missouri if they were a little discombobulated -- their mascot was getting mauled.)

You know how in some soccer games, a team will score early, then attempt to play keep-away for about 80 minutes until the clock runs out?  That's basically what Penn State did in the 1970 Orange Bowl (which you can apparently purchase here, if you dare). Mizzou drove first, working their way inside the Penn State 30, but a 47-yard field goal attempt came up short.  Penn State responded with a made field goal of their own, and they were up 3-0 with under four minutes to go in the first quarter.  On the first play after kickoff, Joe Moore was separated from the ball by All-American tackle Mike Reid; Penn State recovered, and on the very next play, Chuck Burkhart found Lydell Mitchell for a 28-yard touchdown and a 10-0 lead.  All of the points they would score in that game, they scored in 21 seconds.

Then it was time for keepaway.  Actually, that's probably not quite right.  Try takeaway.  Time and again, Missouri worked their way into Penn State territory, only to turn the ball over.  Mizzou drives ended via turnover at the Penn State 22, 38, 7 and 18.  Penn State's John Ebersole stripped Mel Gray after a nice gain to the 7, ending Mizzou's very best chance of the first half.  Thanks to a 40-yard pass to Joe Moore, Mizzou did manage a field goal before halftime and entered the locker room a) thankful to be within a touchdown (10-3) despite five turnovers and b) angry that they weren't up by 14.

The second half was more of the same.  Staggers and Moore combined for 131 rushing yards on 28 carries, but when Penn State leveraged Mizzou into passing downs, the ball usually changed hands.  For the game, Mizzou threw seven (!) interceptions and lost two fumbles.  They outgained Penn State by a healthy margin, 306-244, but they just couldn't punch the ball in.  With future starting quarterback Chuck Roper now in the game, Mizzou got the ball back with 1:55 remaining, and they put together one final rally.  After a 10-yard completion, Roper found John Henley for 37 yards to the Penn State 15.  But two plays later, with under 30 seconds remaining, Roper was intercepted by George Landis (Landis' second of the day) at the 2.  Ballgame.

To make what was at least seven trips into Penn State territory and wind up with just three points had to be a maddening way to end the season.  But it clearly did not do lasting damage to the legacy of the 1969 Tigers, potentially Missouri's greatest offensive team of all-time.  The 1969 season was a culmination of all that Dan Devine had attempted to build in his decade-plus at Mizzou, and he might have accomplished even more there if he hadn't been plucked away by the Green Bay Packers 12 months later.  It is part of the Missouri legacy that they could never quite put everything together in one perfect season, but Mizzou was unquestionably part of college football's top tier in the 1960s.  They finished with no worse than a .650 winning percentage every year, they ranked in the top ten for parts of six seasons, and they began and finished the decade with dreams of national titles and trips to the Orange Bowl.  This was not Devine's best team of that decade, but aside from a mediocre 1970 season, this was the punctuation mark of his time in Columbia.