In the opening chapter of my first book, Study Hall, I write about the 10 games that most directly shaped my college football fandom. One stands out above all the others, and it kicked of basically 20 years ago right now.
Welcome to life as a Missouri fan, kid.
Mizzou fans of a certain age will perpetually struggle to let their collective guard down, mostly because of what happened when they did so in the 1990s. First, you had the Fifth Down in 1990, when the officials lost track of downs in the final minute of Missouri’s upset attempt against eventual national champion Colorado. (By the way, Colorado quarterback Charles Johnson was down before he reached across the goal line on fifth down. You can never tell me otherwise.) Then, you had Mizzou’s 1995 upset bid of eventual basketball national champion UCLA done in by a 4.8-second, length-of-the-court drive by Tyus Edney in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. But I experienced those from afar. The Colorado-Missouri game wasn’t on television in Oklahoma, and while Tyus Edney crushed me, I was still not yet fully invested in Mizzou fandom. I was only about 95 percent or so.
This game, on the other hand? I was fully immersed. This was my fourth home game as a Mizzou student. I was in the 14th row of the student section. When Corby Jones found Eddie Brooks on a perfect play-action pass, one that you could see had worked while the pass was still in the air, for the go-ahead touchdown midway through the fourth quarter, it was my first true experience of college football joy and bedlam, hugging strangers and not being able to hear myself screaming because of all the chaos around me.
By the end of the game, with Missouri up 38-31 on the No. 1 team in the country, the 14th row was standing on about the seventh row of the bleachers. The crush was ready. It almost misfired when squatty linebacker Al Sterling nearly made a diving interception earlier in Nebraska’s final drive — I still swear he caught it before it hit the ground, and if the game is on ESPN Classic, I make sure to look away for this play so I don’t have to be proven wrong — but it was so very ready.
I still clearly remember every millisecond of the final play of regulation. Quarterback Scott Frost threw over the middle to receiver Shevin Wiggins at the goal line; two Missouri defenders were there to bat the pass away, and it fluttered away from Wiggins. The student section surged toward the field, collectively thinking Mizzou had just won the game. Some Nebraska player behind the play dove to the ground for some reason, and the official’s arms signaled touchdown. At this point I was basically in the front row, charging toward the field involuntarily (getting charged toward the field, I guess), one of the only ones around me to see the official’s arms in the air. A dorm mate, attacking from the northeast corner of the stadium, was the first person to reach the goal posts. Memorial Stadium went from unabashed joy to confusion and chaos and absurdity and a little bit of anger in seconds.
I assume you probably know what happened, but in case you don’t: When Wiggins was knocked to the ground, with the ball falling away from him, he swung his legs up and kicked the ball back into the air. Freshman receiver Matt Davison – who would walk on to Nebraska’s basketball team a couple of years later and get booed vigorously for 40 straight minutes by Missouri fans at the Big 12 tournament – dove for the ball and caught it. Wiggins later admitted he kicked the ball intentionally, which is illegal, but there was no way for officials to understand that at the time.
Once in overtime, the outcome was a foregone conclusion, of course. Nebraska scored, Missouri didn’t, et cetera. We knew what was going to happen, and then it happened. We had to sit patiently until the inevitable took place, then we had to trudge back to the dorms to figure out what the hell we had just seen.
I still remember that night, too. Reality sank in. By 10:00 p.m., a group of friends and I had come together in a dorm room, and we almost literally just stared at the tiles on the floor for a couple of hours, then went our separate ways. College football is great, but college football is often just cruel. The Flea Kicker: my own Immaculate Reception.
This is obviously not a good memory for Mizzou fans, but it’s one that contains a certain amount of wonder and awe all the same. In a roundabout way, those in attendance were blessed. Most of a team’s biggest wins are really only big and memorable to their fans. But 20 years ago today, Missouri and Nebraska took part in one of college football’s classic games.
The Fifth Down game stunk. It just did. Guys were slipping all over the place, and Colorado played like crap, and the only reason it was memorable is because of the finish.
This game, though? Sure, it needed the wild finish to be remembered nationally, but this was truly one of the best games I’ve ever seen, one packed with incredible individual performances and standout moments.
- Torey Coleman’s second-quarter touchdown catch that tied the game at 14-14. He had suffered at least one major drop earlier in the season, and every ball that hit his hands seemed to ricochet a few times before settling in. But he held onto this one.
- Brock Olivo’s 34-yard touchdown pass with 3:29 left in the first half. Shad Criss had just intercepted a long Scott Frost pass and returned the ball into NU territory, and when Olivo weaved his way into the end zone, Memorial Stadium lifted off the ground for a second. That was the “YES. THIS MIGHT REALLY HAPPEN” moment.
- Devin West’s 62-yard kickoff return late in the third quarter. The Huskers had just taken the lead back, 28-24, on a short Frost touchdown. West raced back the other way on the ensuing kickoff and set up a six-play, 35-yard touchdown drive. Mizzou trailed for just two minutes, then took the lead back on...
- ...Corby Jones’ backwards dive. Is it dumb to basically leap backwards and blindly reach the ball out for the end zone? Yeah, technically. It also gave Mizzou the lead, 31-28, with 43 seconds left in the third.
- Jones to Eddie Brooks. This was the “YES. THIS IS GOING TO HAPPEN” moment. Harold Piersey had just picked off Frost again, and Mizzou needed only four plays to drive 30 yards and break a 31-31 tie. The moment Jones completed his run fake and stepped back to throw, the entire crowd saw Brooks come open. I still get chills thinking about this play (and the reaction of 66,000 to that play).
Yeah, the ending was the ending. But this might have been the greatest sporting event I ever attended. And while I remember the ending, I remember the hugs and the chaos and the gleam in Larry Smith’s eye as well. This was an incredible afternoon in Columbia.
And hey, it set up an even more cathartic experience just six years later. Good things come to those who wait, right?