The 1997 Missouri Tigers football team was flawed in many ways. Teams that go 7-5 typically are. But almost no team in Missouri's history had a stronger identity than that one. The 1997 offensive backfield was the perfect Larry Smith prototype: deep, mean, and capable of gashing you in a few different ways. It featured four 500-yard rushers -- quarterback Corby Jones, halfbacks Brock Olivo and Devin West, and fullback Ernest Blackwell -- and the most fullbacky fullback in Missouri history, big Ron Janes.
(Focusing on the backfield is a bit unfair to the big, dirty, angry line blocking for it, but that's life for an offensive lineman, I guess. Regardless, Travis Biebel, Mike Morris, Rob Riti, Craig Heimburger/Cliff Smith, and Todd Neimeyer helped to establish the identity that Jones, Olivo, West, Blackwell, and Janes rode to acclaim.)
If Olivo, West, and Blackwell were one back, Ervick Olistwell would have been a Heisman contender, rushing for 1,904 yards and 17 touchdowns in 1996, then following up with 1,946 yards and 23 touchdowns in 1997. Combined with Jones' increasingly consistent play (742 rushing yards and 5.9 yards per pass in 1996, 1,019 yards and 8.3 in 1997), you had one hell of a combination. But that doesn't really tell the whole story here.
Beyond simple prowess, two things made this backfield so notable: diversity and gratitude. The five players comprising this backfield could not have been more different. You had Jones, the cocky leader, the guy who chose Mizzou over Nebraska and became Mizzou's best quarterback in 15 years.
You had Olivo, Brocky, the face of the franchise. He was the guy with whom everyday Missourians identified, the up-by-the-bootstraps story, a completely unheralded prospect who became (briefly) Mizzou's all-time leading rusher.
You had West, the local boy from Moberly with size, brains, and elite speed. In 1997, he was still like a colt trying to find its legs. He didn't get complete control over his body until 1998, but wow, when he did, records fell.
You had Janes, the hulking, 275-pound fullback in a lineman's body. (He was actually bigger than 270-pound Rob Riti.) When Gary Pinkel took over and Mizzou fans began a decade-long obsession over the offense's missing fullback, it was Rhino Ron they were picturing. Not every fullback is Ron Janes, but every fullback should be.
And you had Blackwell, the physical freak and eventual tragic story. At 6'3, 235 pounds and easily faster than Olivo, Blackwell was the homerun hitter, the person who did more than just punish you for following the option outside. A "fullback," he averaged 6.9 yards per carry and scored 12 times in 1996-97. His 67-yard touchdown led off the scoring in the wild fourth quarter of an eventual homecoming win over Texas in 1997. (His line for that game: 4 carries, 85 yards. He had a lot of games like that.) And with a tortured childhood, his was the ultimate redemption tale, at least until a tragic final act.
There was such personality among this group, but the backfield wouldn't have been as celebrated without its timeliness. If Mizzou went 7-5 in 2013, it would not be celebrated; but in 1997, after 13 consecutive losing seasons? Jones, Olivo, West, Blackwell, and Janes were the program's saviors. They were very, very good at what they did, but they also helped to rescue a program from anonymity. This proud football program, one that had invented modern option football in the 1940s, became a national power in the 1960s, became the most terrifying underdog of the 1970s, and produced so many strong quarterbacks (from Paul Christman to Phil Bradley) and running backs (from Mel West to James Wilder) had become a football wasteland on Omniturf. And for all of his flaws, Larry Smith reminded Missouri fans of what it was like to believe and compete and win. (This eventually became his downfall, really.) On its accomplishments alone, this backfield was probably worthy of the top 100 on this list. But when you add to it the symbolism, the pure gratitude Mizzou fans had for it at the time, it reaches Top 75.
Corby Jones, however, gets his own spot on that list because of one game. Everything the Mizzou backfield did over four years, Jones did in one afternoon and early evening at Faurot Field. The stats -- 12-for-20 passing for 233 yards, three touchdowns and a pick; 12 carries for 60 yards and a touchdown -- are impressive but don't do justice what #7 did, both to Nebraska and for Mizzou fans.
You want hope and guts and belief and everything Mizzou had been missing for so long? Watch Jones evade pass rusher after pass rusher. Watch him execute the option fake to perfection and find Eddie Brooks (three catches, 64 yards, and the most thrilling touchdown I had witnessed at that point in my life) wide open. Goodness ... watch him escape the pocket and dive backwards into the end zone, head first, into the end zone.
There is a certain shade, a certain level of dimness associated with when afternoon turns to evening. The sun is still providing light, but it's getting erased by the horizon. If you're at a football game, one with that 2:30 p.m. kickoff, then this time usually hits right around the midpoint of the third quarter, especially by early November. The stadium lights slowly start to overtake the natural light, and the viewing experience is, for just a few minutes, perfect.
Sixteen years later, I associate this time of day with Corby's dive. My eyes well up a little bit like Larry Smith's did. On that play, and in that game, Corby was fearless, nearly flawless, and, it seemed at the time, impossibly athletic. He was going to lead Missouri over Nebraska, he was going to win a Heisman one day, he was going to bring Missouri to the promised land.
It wasn't enough, of course, but that almost doesn't even matter. As I've said before, in the absence of the ultimate victory, we are left searching for moments. For 60 minutes against the No. 1 team in the country, a burgeoning dynasty that was, with some ridiculous luck in the north endzone, on its way toward claiming its third national title in four years, Corby Jones was just awesome in every way an option quarterback can be awesome.