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Mizzou's Greatest, #55: Mizzou vs. Alabama, The 1968 Gator Bowl

The year of my immersion into Mizzou sports.

The Savitar

1968 was the true beginning of Mizzou sports for me. Though my father and I had followed Mizzou on the radio and in the newspapers for nine years prior, my arrival on campus as a freshman j-school candidate completed the burning of Mizzou into my consciousness – and the football team began that branding process.

The Tigers had finished 1967 with a 7-3 record, losing only to Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas. and only giving up only 80 points all season.

Hopes were high on campus in the fall of 1968, despite the fact the Tigers would have to break in a new quarterback to replace Gary Kombrink. There were two two options for the greatest undecided element of the 1968 team: returning underclassman Garnett Phelps and junior transfer Terry McMillan from Joplin Jr. College (renamed the next year Missouri Southern College).

It was a traditional Dan Devine team: stout defense, basic line-up-and-knock-'em-back offense, minimize the errors and grind out a win.

Though neither Phelps nor McMillan put up great numbers, McMillan was clearly better running the ball and as good on the pass. By season's end, the transfer had won the starting job, completing 56 of 113 passes for 745 yards and four touchdowns with seven interceptions. Phelps added 34 completions in 84 attempts for 536 yards, five touchdowns and six interceptions.

Starting tailback Greg Cook carried the ball 161 times for 693 yards and four touchdowns, and caught 14 passes for 103 yards and a touchdown. Following him were five other Tigers over 300 yards: shifty slotback Jon Staggers (first cousin to legendary tennis player Arthur Ashe of that era) with 385 yards and four touchdowns on 94 carries; fullback Ron McBride with 83 carries for 367 yards and four touchdowns; McMillan with 90 carries for 357 yards and four touchdowns; hard-running tailback Joe Moore with 66 carries for 322 yards and three touchdowns; and gigantic fullback Jim Harrison with 85 carries for 319 yards and seven touchdowns.

Running behind an offensive line composed of Jim Anderson, Mike Carroll, Joe Clark, Tom Crnko, Conway Rees and tightend Tom Shryock, Devine's stable of runners were the foundation for an offense that scored 240 points for a 7-1 record to start the year.

The only receivers of note besides Cook were world-class-fast Mel Gray (a transfer from Fort Scott Junior College) with 14 catches for 337 yards and three touchdowns and slotback Staggers with 19 receptions for 171 yards.

The name of the game for the Tigers in 1968 was primarily the same as the previous year: hard-hitting, clock-eating offense and a stingy defense that yielded only 77 points in those first eight games.

The season then began to slip away for the sixth-ranked Tigers with a 14-28 loss at unranked Oklahoma, followed by a closely-fought 19-21 loss at home to seventh-ranked kansas.

The jaybirds had already been offered and accepted an invitation to play third-ranked Penn State in the Orange Bowl before the game, and the Tigers had accepted an offer to the Gator Bowl to face 12th-ranked Alabama.

As the kansas game drew to a close, the student section erupted with a barrage of oranges brought into the stadium in hopes of embarrassing the jaybirds after our boys defeated them – despite the loss, many oranges rained down on the redlegs from kansas as they left the field.

The Tigers, now ranked 16th in the nation took the field Saturday, Dec. 28, 1968, against the more highly regarded and 12th-ranked Crimson Tide, with the intention of stopping a two-game losing streak and redeeming themselves nationally.

Missouri's Dan Devine and Alabama's Bear Bryant were both highly respected coaches in 1968. They both took over the reins of their respective schools in 1958: Devine had a 27-3-1 record at Arizona State before that time and had put together a 78-30-8 record at Mizzou over the next 11 years; Bryant brought a 91-39-9 record to Alabama from Maryland, Kentucky and Texas A&M, and built a 96-16-7 record at Alabama in his first 11 years with the Tide.

While most of America expected the Bear to give Devine a lesson in college football, more than 20,000 Mizzou students were home on Christmas break, many of which had gathered family and friends to cheer for the Tigers. Only a couple of dozen MU college football players and their coaches understood who was going to get schooled that day.

Devine decided to change his offensive formation for the game in order to take advantage of his strong offensive line and powerful running game. He pulled slotback Jon Staggers in to line up in a new Power-I formation as a blocker with the fullback.

Tight end Tom Shryock would not catch a pass; neither would Mel Gray or Jon Staggers. In fact, McMillan only threw six passes all day, none of which would be caught by a Tiger, though two of which would be caught by the other team.

Instead, the Tiger runners ran straight up the gut all afternoon – and with great success.

Fullbacks McBride and Harrison were neither fast, but both were big and strong and did not like to hit the ground: McBride rushed 18 times for 68 yards, and Harrison carried the ball 11 times for 58 yards. Staggers, who usually picked up his yards on sweeps or pitchouts saw the ball only seven times for 19 yards; when he was used it was usually as a decoy. McMillan was not a punishing runner, but was adept at starting and stopping, picking his way through the debris of fallen Tidesmen as he followed his interference for 76 yards and three touchdowns on 18 carries.

Tailback Greg Cook, a hard-hitting, standup runner who absolutely refused to be tacked by anything less than a crowd, followed his blockers straight up the middle fighting and shedding blockers 27 times for 179 yards and a back-breaking 35-yard touchdown in the third quarter.

McMillan started the scoring with a four-yard touchdown in the first quarter to cap an 11-play, 71-yard drive. In the second quarter, Bama's Donnie Sutton ran an interception back 38 yards to tie the game. Then, with three minutes left in the half, McMillan again scored, this time from five yards to cap a 57-yard drive and give the Tigers a 14-7 halftime lead.

The third quarter was scoreless, and the Tide pulled closer with a 25-yard field goal early in the fourth. On their next defensive series, Tiger cornerback Roger Wehrli ran back an interception to the 21-yard line. Four plays later, McMillan scored his third touchdown of the game with a two-yard run for a 21-10 Mizzou lead. Then came Cook's heroic blast up the middle from 35 yards out followed by safety Dennis Poppe's 47-yard interception return to bury the Tide 35-10.

It was Bear Bryants greatest bowl-game loss and, until the 2007 Cotton Bowl, was Missouri's greatest bowl victory.

While much has been said about the Tiger offense (the Tigers finished with 402 yards rushing), not enough can be said about their defense. The Tide finished with -45 yards rushing (figuring in the 12 sacks of Alabama quarterback Scott Hunter) and only 77 yards passing (7 of 27 with two interceptions) for a total offensive output of 32 yards.

Defensive linemen Jay (Rocky) Wallace, Carl Garber, Elmer Bernhardt, Mark Kuhlmar, Roger Boyd and Bill Schmitt spent the day in the Alabama backfield. Linebackers Steve Lundholm and Jerry Boyd cleaned up the debris if someone got near the line of scrimmage, and cornerbacks Roger Wehrli and Butch Davis, and safety George Fountain (backed up by Poppe) patroled the outfield, picking off two passes and allowing only seven receptions.

Alabama, which had lost only two games all year by a total of three points, were sent home that December day down 25 points – as Mizzou fans cheered and enbibed on into the weekend and well into the second semester.