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Mizzou's Greatest, #80: Missouri 22, Ohio State 21 (1976)

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The 1976 Missouri Tigers hold perhaps the most back-handed distinction in Mizzou's football history: best 6-5 team ever. There's no question that they were great on a September Saturday in Columbus.

The Savitar

We've written about this one before. It was awesome.

One of the chapters of Mizzou's football legacy -- right after the 1960s run as a national power, and right before the 1980s collapse -- is the series of unbelievable upsets the Tigers pulled in the 1970s. From Notre Dame in 1972, to Nebraska in 1973, to Nebraska in 1974, to Alabama in 1975, to USC and Ohio State in 1976, to Notre Dame and Nebraska again in 1978, Mizzou took out one giant after another. Building a strong history is, really, all about championships and moments. The list of Mizzou's championships might be short, but they've experienced almost enough incredible moments to make up the difference.

Of all the amazing upsets, Mizzou's late-September 1976 win in Columbus had to be considered the least likely. Ohio State was ranked 2nd in the country and had just beaten No. 7 Penn State in Happy Valley. Meanwhile, after drubbing a Top 10 USC team on the road, Mizzou had lost QB Steve Pisarkiewicz and been pummeled, 31-6, by a mediocre Illinois team at home the preceding week. Mustachioed backup Pete Woods would see his first career start in front of the third-largest crowd in Ohio Stadium history (87,936), against a team that had won 25 straight homes games.

Things went according to plan early. Buckeye LB Nick Buonamici tipped and intercepted a Woods pass, setting up a Pete Johnson touchdown that gave OSU a comfortable 21-7 halftime lead. Johnson ran for 103 yards and three touchdowns in the first half, and it looked like Ohio State would win easily.

But then the Mizzou defense stiffened. OSU would gather just 82 yards of offense in the second half (Johnson had just 19). After Big Play Chris Garlich intercepted a pass near midfield early in the third quarter, Mizzou's Curtis Brown scored from four yards out to cut the lead to 21-14. From there, it became a battle of punting units; Woody Hayes was as conservative as they come, and in assuming that eventually his players would execute well enough to win, he took few chances. On the other sideline, Al Onofrio was not interested in handing the game to Ohio State either. It was a staring contest -- who would make the first mistake? -- and Ohio State uncharacteristically blinked first.

When Tiger DE Blaine Henningsen sacked OSU QB Rod Gerald with about five minutes left in the game, OSU was forced to punt. A previously boisterous crowd was starting to get anxious. Meanwhile, Mizzou settled down ... almost too much. Milking the clock and attempting just two passes, the Tigers moved down the field, benefitting from a timely Ohio State holding penalty and moving into Buckeye territory. On third-and-6 from the OSU 40, Brown burst through the line for 31 yards, setting up some serious drama.

Forget OSU v. Mizzou -- it became Pete Woods v. The Horseshoe. Here's where the YouTube video picks up.

In the mid-1970s, football crowds were evidently expected to play nice. Woods repeatedly asked for help from the officials in quieting the crowd near the endzone, and they attempted to oblige. Of course, this just raised the volume (and Woody Hayes' hackles) even more. On third-and-goal with 16 seconds left, Woods took a quick, three-step drop and threw a lob to Leo Lewis near the left corner of the endzone. Lewis barely got a foot down and barely held on long enough (let's just say that if instant replay had existed in 1976, it would have likely been fourth-and-goal), but the officials ruled the play a touchdown, and it was 21-20.

Without hesitation, Onofrio decided to go for the win. Under pressure while rolling right, Woods threw incomplete, but there was a flag on the play: defensive holding. On the second attempt, Woods evaded two tacklers and sneaked into the endzone. After getting dominated for most of the first half, Mizzou had straight-up stolen a 1-point win in Columbus.

Greeted by 800 fans at the Columbia airport, Onofrio told reporters, "Looking back on all the football games Missouri has played, I'd say this has to be the greatest football game Missouri has ever played under the conditions." With a backup QB facing the toughest road environment in the country, it's hard to disagree. There were numerous 50-50 calls that went the Tigers' way, but ... well, try convincing Mizzou fans that they don't deserve to get a few breaks occasionally.

You could write a complete book about the 1976 season. This was a team that...

  • ...killed No. 8 USC on the road, 46-25...
  • ...then got killed at home by a mediocre-at-best Illinois squad, 31-6...
  • ...then beat No. 2 Ohio State in Columbus, 22-21, with their backup quarterback...
  • ...then whipped No. 14 North Carolina at home, 24-3...
  • ...then lost at home to Iowa State, 21-17...
  • ...then beat No. 3 Nebraska in Lincoln, 34-24...
  • ...then lost at No. 16 Oklahoma State, 20-19...
  • ...then beat No. 14 Colorado at home, 16-7, and gave No. 14 Oklahoma a good scare before falling, 27-20, in Norman...
  • ...then got whipped at home by a 6-5 Kansas squad, 41-14, to finish a mediocre 6-5 and miss out on a bowl bid for the third consecutive year (they were bowl eligible all three years, so naturally that would have been different today).

Never mind a football book about this team ... somebody needs to write a psychology book about this team (and, for that matter, whoever threw this schedule together -- Mizzou played NINE games against teams that finished with a winning record). They played seven ranked teams and went an amazing 5-2 against them ... and went 1-3 against unranked teams. This was the most ridiculous season in a string of ridiculous seasons.

In comments last year, a player from the 1976 squad, Earl Billings, wrote the following:

I played on these teams(might as well add ‘75 too) and I have no doubt we could have beaten whoever turns out to be number 1 on this list. Unfortunately, we could have been beaten by the 100th team on this list as well. I always felt it came down to coaching. Anyone can get up for the big games but you need coaches who can make adjustments to win the others. We had some of the best talent in school history. Kellen Winslow, Henry Marshall, Tony Galbreth, Curtis Brown, Leo Lewis, Chris Garlich, Kenny Downing(best and toughest tackler I’ve ever seen) etc..

Fans looking back on this year are more likely to remember the upset wins than the losses, which is why a lot of fans like the idea of rough non-conference schedules -- they love being able to talk about the wins without remembering all the losses. But this was a season chock full of missed opportunities. Nobody can question, however, that this was a damn fine football team when it wanted to be ... and in the final minutes in Columbus, it wanted to be damn fine.