Remember a few weeks ago, when I posted a big piece about Mizzou's dramatic 1978 season? One more game from that season just appeared online: Mizzou-Alabama.
A home opener against the #1 team in the country is going to be a pretty hot ticket no matter what, and sure enough pretty much every hotel room in the city of Columbia had already been booked before Missouri went out and beat Notre Dame? But after the huge upset and Missouri's meteoric rise from unranked to #11 in the country? Let's just say it was a good thing that the university had just completed the stadium expansion in the South endzone.
Led by QB Jeff Rutledge and RBs Tony Nathan and Major Ogilvie on offense, and DE E.J. Junior, DT Marty Lyons and LB Barry Krauss on defense, the Tide were loaded. After a cold (for them) stretch in the late-1960s, Alabama had caught fire in the 1970s, having gone 11-1, 10-2, 11-1, 11-1, 11-1, 9-3, and 11-1 since 1971. They were in the middle of a stretch (from the end of 1976 to the middle of 1980) that saw them win 43 times in 45 games.
Bryant, however, had never beaten Missouri in his Tuscaloosa tenure. Missouri had won their two previous matchups, both in relatively dominant fashion--a 35-10 win in the 1968 Gator Bowl, and a 20-7 season-opening thumping in Birmingham in 1975. Mizzou was also a bit of a sandwich game for them--it was a tricky road trip between home games (in Birmingham) against Nebraska (#10 at the time) and USC (#8). If anything, though, Mizzou's win over Notre Dame served as a bit of a wake-up call. Now the Tigers were also a highly-ranked team, and the game at Faurot would take place in front of both a record number of fans in the stands (73,655) and a record number of national journalists covering the proceedings.
From the outset, Bama was ready. On a muggy, 85-degree afternoon in mid-Missouri, they took only six plays to move 71 yards on the opening possession, and a Major Ogilvie run put them up 7-0. An all-too-quick Mizzou possession led to a quick punt, and Alabama quickly scored again (Jeff Rutledge to TE Rick Neal) to make the score 14-0. Missouri apparently hadn't yet shaken off the hangover of the previous week's win, and they were already on the verge of getting blown out of the water.
Three minutes into the second quarter, the Crimson Tide kicked a field goal to go up 17-0, and finally Mizzou woke up. Led by James Wilder and Phil Bradley, they methodically marched down the field, scoring when Earl Gant plowed in from four yards out. The Mizzou defense was perking up by this point, and they quickly forced an Alabama punt. After a short Wilder run, Bradley ran a picture-perfect option keeper to the right, found a crease, and shot out the backfield like a cannonball. With great downfield blocking, he weaved his way through the entire Alabama defense for a 69-yard touchdown. Bradley went crazy in the endzone, the crowd (many of whom were basically just standing outside the north endzone) were doing the same. Suddenly Memorial Stadium was a hornet's nest, and the #1 team in the country was stumbling.
Then it got even worse for Alabama. On their second play of the following drive, Rutledge threw an out toward Neal, but it hung in the air too long. Russ Calabrese stepped in front of Neal for the interception, and weaved his way into the endzone for a pick six. After sleepwalking through the first 18 minutes of the game, Missouri had woken up and played 12 of the best minutes a Mizzou team had ever played. They would take an improbable 20-17 lead into halftime.
Bear Bryant won a lot of games in his career. In the process, there were probably quite a few times where he had to light a fire under an underachieving bunch at halftime. It was probably pretty familiar territory for him, and to say the least, he said the things that needed to be said. 'Bama came out of the locker room having been verbally slapped around a bit, and in turn they decided to slap Missouri around.
Missouri got the ball to start the second half and was quickly forced to punt. For an attempted momentum-changer, Bryant sent the house at punter Monte Montgomery, and it worked--E.J. Junior blocked the kick, LB Ricky Gilliland recovered it, and amid a convoy, returned it 35 yards for a touchdown. 24-20 Alabama. Mizzou fumbled, and Alabama drove for a touchdown. 31-20. Mizzou fumbled again, and Alabama again drove for a touchdown. 38-20.
Momentum was Missouri's best friend and worst enemy on that muggy afternoon. In the end, the Tigers only really played well for about one full quarter, and no matter how amazing were in that stretch, that's not good enough to beat the #1 team in the country. Sans the Bama partisans in the crowd, most of the 70K in attendance went home disappointed, but they had gotten glimpses of how good this team would be, and 60,000 of them would be back to see even more glimpses seven days later.
Let me go ahead and cue the good part up for you. Just a chaotic few minutes.
(And yes, the guys on the call are the same ones from the famous "DID YOU SEE HIM?" James Wilder call.)