Once more: This is a look at 20 games in which a) the combined quality of Missouri and its opponent was really, really high (they're ranked in order of combined S&P+ percentile ratings), and b) Mizzou won.
If it were up to me, next to the division and conference titles boasted atop Memorial Stadium near the press box, there would be a line that says "1976: Best 6-5 team ever." (If it were up to me, Missouri would also immediately claim the 1960 and 2007 football national titles. The 1921 basketball title, too. There's a reason these things aren't up to me.)
History + Stats
The 1976 season was a magnificent, backwards disaster in every possible way. That fall, Missouri went 5-2 against ranked teams and 1-3 against unranked teams. In the first month of the season, Al Onofrio's Tigers beat No. 8 USC and No. 2 Ohio State, both on the road. In between, they lost to Illinois at home by 25 points. They eked by Kansas State, lost to Iowa State, and beat No. 3 Nebraska. They beat No. 14 Colorado and finished the season with a 27-point home loss to Kansas.
Every fan base has a certain "that's so us" attitude that we use as a defense mechanism. It protects us from disappointment -- "Of COURSE we lost that game. That's what we do." It allows us to feel like there's a certain amount of fate involved. It's all an act on our part, of course.
Again, every fan base does that. But this season perhaps created more of the "that's so us" attitude within Missouri fans than any other season in any other sport. In this season, Mizzou proved it could beat absolutely anybody and lose to absolutely anybody. It was amazing. In fact, I'll be writing about it more very soon.
Missouri's 34-24 win in Lincoln is remembered for one play. That's somewhat unfair because this game had quite a few big ones. But when you complete a 98-yard pass -- the longest in the history of the Big 8 -- to pull a road upset, it does tend to end up in canon. I attempted to find video of the play, but somehow, despite almost every OTHER Nebraska game from the 1970s being on YouTube in some form other another, that one is not.
Still, despite a lack of video evidence, it happened.
Nebraska had only two minutes earlier taken a 24-23 lead on Missouri with a 20-yard field goal. It was the latest "back" in a back-and-forth affair. Mizzou's Rob Fitzgerald had intercepted a pass to set up a one-yard Pete Woods touchdown early in the game. Nebraska had responded by blocking and recovering a Monte Montgomery punt in the end zone, and Mizzou countered by blocking the PAT to keep it 7-6. It was 12-7 when Woods hit Kellen Winslow for a nine-yard touchdown, and after Mizzou recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff, Woods scored again from the 1 to make it 20-12 Mizzou midway through the second quarter.
Mizzou forced a punt after the back-to-back scores, but the Tigers fumbled, setting up a 16-yard scoring drive in response.
Down 23-18 at halftime, Nebraska completely dominated the third quarter but could manage only two field goals -- one on the opening drive, and one three seconds into the fourth quarter. It gave the Huskers the lead, but it also gave Mizzou margin for error.
And then the bomb changed the game. Mizzou faced a third-and-14 from its 2. In most instances, with your collective backs on your goal line, you run a draw play in the hopes of gaining three yards so your punter has space to punt. But Onofrio's team was fearless, and while that frequently backfired in 1976, it also resulted in too many huge plays to count.
Not fearing a safety -- which would only have increased Nebraska's lead to three -- Pete Woods fired the famous bomb to Joe Stewart, who took it to the house, then caught another pass for a two-point conversion. With 12:53 left, Mizzou was up, 31-24.
Another Kirkpatrick interception set up a 34-yard field goal that iced the game away.
The yardage totals were nearly identical: Nebraska rushed for 223 yards to Mizzou's 207, and both teams threw for 191 yards. The difference came in the turnovers department: NU's Vince Ferragamo threw two interceptions, and Nebraska fumbled five times, losing four. Mizzou suffered the fumbled punt return, and the blocked punt basically served as another turnover. But the Tigers stil played a far cleaner game despite the big passes (Stewart finished with three catches for 145 yards) and took another huge win.
And then lost to Oklahoma State a week later.
It has been a tradition at Missouri to take on difficult schedules. In 1978, for example, Missouri opens at Notre Dame, then returns home to play Alabama. But there are those who say that while big intersectional games may excite fans and bring in big bucks, Missouri perhaps is left too emotionally and physically exhausted to sustain itself in the cannibalistic Big Eight conference battle. Assistant Coach John Kadlec says, "The kind of kids we want like the challenge of playing this kind of schedule." Was the schedule what lured Tailback Dean Leibson here from Corning, N.Y.? "No, actually it was the girls," he says. Maybe Onofrio is right: in Columbia there obviously are distractions.
It has become an obsession with Onofrio to try to celebrate wins moderately and minimize agony over defeats. The coaches have talked about the problem and this year are stressing individual and team goals for each game—trying to establish that an intercepted pass against Kansas State is as important as one against Oklahoma. "What I wonder," says Onofrio, staring into a dish of strawberry ice cream, "is whether we are overachieving and winning, or underachieving and losing." [...]
Then came the play. In the dry press box above, Assistant Coach Dick Jamie-son ordered the "pro-left, tight, fake dive, 127 Z-Streak." From out of a running formation, Woods let loose a wobbly but true toss that landed in Stewart's hands way down yonder. And at this inopportune moment, a Cornhusker defensive back stumbled. Stewart, who said he was thinking of the importance of holding the ball tight, like while he was running, was alone and home free at last. The 98-yarder was the only pass Woods completed in the second half; the 98-yarder was also a Big Eight record.