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In 1941, Mizzou changed everything and won big once again

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Mizzou 1941b The Savitar

Mizzou entered 1941 with maybe its fastest team of all time. The Tigers boasted a backfield of young stars like Bob Steuber, Harry Ice, and Maurice “Red” Wade and a blocker corps of fullback Bull Reece and one of the school’s best ever lines —future All-American and number retiree Darold Jenkins, all-conference guard Mike Fitzgerald and tackle Bob Jeffries were all stars. The Tigers’ freshman team had dominated in 1940 as well, and big things were expected of the sophomore class.

Don Faurot’s Tigers had everything they could possibly need to put together a big year, except for one thing: a passer. Just two years after Paul Christman nearly won the Heisman with his right arm, Mizzou had no slam-dunk replacement. So Faurot went all-in on a deceptive run game. He created a formation he called the Split-T and changed the game of football in the process.

Mizzou eventually lived up to all expectation in 1941, but it took a little while to round into form.

September 27: Ohio State 12, Missouri 7

Faurot was slow to incorporate the Split-T into Mizzou's game plan right out of the gates, and thanks to a little bit of surreptitious scouting — Ohio State later admitted to sending a staffer down to Columbia to sneak in and jot down a few notes about Mizzou's new-fangled offense — the formation wasn't tremendously effective, anyway, in Mizzou's first game of the season.

In was becoming something of a habit, Mizzou took an early trip to Columbus to take on the Buckeyes of Ohio State to begin 1941, and as was typically the case, they came home with a loss. Led by first-year coach and future NFL champion Paul Brown, the Buckeyes took an early 6-0 lead on a fourth-and-goal plunge, then held on for dear life.

Ohio State took a 12-0 lead in the fourth quarter, but Mizzou's new formation started to pay off. Red Wade squirted through the Buckeye defense for a 27-yard score, and Mizzou got the ball back, down just 12-7, as time began to expire. But a long Steuber pass was intercepted at the OSU 10, and the Buckeyes held on for the win.

Confirming Faurot’s suspicions, Mizzou hadn’t found any success passing; in fact, five of the Tigers’ 14 passes landed in Buckeye hands. Mizzou had outgained Ohio State by a 204-199 margin, but turnovers were key. Whatever reservations he had about deploying the Split-T full-time were washed away, and Mizzou wouldn’t lose again in calendar year 1941.

October 4: Missouri 21, Colorado 6

Beginning with the second game of the season, Mizzou moved to the Split-T basically full-time, and even in inclement weather — especially in inclement weather — it was brutally effective.

Missouri of the Big Six conference used deception of the "T" formation and the Australian crawl to bewilder Colorado's Buffaloes of the Big Seven, 21 to 6, today on a field of puddles.

At times the downpour all but obliterated the field as the Tigers splashed to two touchdowns in the second quarter and another in the third after tanking on a safety in the opening period. The Buffaloes, completely buffaloed by Missouri's harmony of power and hocus-pocus, scored in the final quarter against a host of second and third stringers.

An expected crowd of 15,000 dwindled to only a third that number as the clouds burst and made a lake in the stadium.

The Australian crawl is a swimming reference, and a well-done one at that. Anyway, on back-to-back drives, Wade went 64 yards for a touchdown, then Steuber went 65. Mizzou won easily.

October 11: Missouri 35, Kansas State 0

October 18: Missouri 39, Iowa State 13

Wade went 65 yet again the next week against Kansas State. Mizzou outgained the outmanned Wildcats by a 342-228 margin, completing three passes for 120 yards.

The Tigers shifted to a single wing against Iowa State in Ames (no idea why), and the offense continued to click. Ice scored on runs of 17 and 90 yards, and Steuber scored on runs of 30 and 70 in an explosive 39-13 win over the Cyclones. The Tigers rushed for 448 yards on the day.

Darold Jenkins
Darold Jenkins powered one of Mizzou’s best ever offensive lines
The Savitar

October 25: Missouri 6, Nebraska 0

In the first three games for the full-time T, Mizzou averaged 32 points per game. But now 3-1 and beginning to get national attention, Mizzou had to hunker down after a bye week and power through a sloppy home performance against Nebraska. Luckily, Mizzou still had one heck of a defense.

The Tigers moved the ball alright, gaining 240 yards to the Huskers’ 165, but they fumbled five times and were penalized eight times. The option attack was clearly out of sync. But Bull Reece scored on a fourth-quarter plunge, and that was all Mizzou needed in a shutout win.

This was Mizzou’s fourth win in a row, and it got the Tigers back into the polls for the first time post-Christman.

November 1: No. 19 Missouri 19, Michigan State 0

November 8: No. 17 Missouri 26, NYU 0

At 3-0 in Big Six play, Mizzou was two games from a conference title, but the Tigers had to finish their non-conference slate first. Back-to-back road trips took them first to Macklin Field in East Lansing, then Yankee Stadium. Neither trip provided resistance.

Michigan State was 2-2 when Mizzou came to town. They had been competitive in losses to Michigan and Santa Clara, but with minimal scouting opportunities, the Spartans had absolutely no answers for the Tiger attack. Mizzou didn’t complete a pass but didn’t have to, rushing for 431 yards in an easy 19-0 win. Steuber scored from 60 yards out, then Ice scored from 27.

The NYU game played out a lot like the 1939 game had, with NYU hanging around for a little while then falling victim to a deluge. Mizzou rushed for only 247 yards this time, but after a scoreless first quarter (which featured a goal line stand by the Violet), Wade scored on the first play of the second quarter, and the rout was on. Despite two more fumbles and three more picks, Mizzou won easily.

November 15: No. 16 Missouri 28, Oklahoma 0

Whipping iffy teams was not moving Mizzou very quickly up the rankings, even including a trip to New York. Despite back-to-back shutout wins on the road, the Tigers had only advanced to 16th in the AP poll. But they had a huge opportunity when OU came to visit.

The Sooners were unranked, but the Oklahoma name had cachet, and they were 5-1 with only a loss to an awesome Texas team. With a win over Mizzou, they would have almost certainly found themselves ranked once more. It was not to be.

This is what Homecoming is supposed to be like.

COLUMBIA, Mo., Nov. 15 -- Any bowl bids today?

Missouri University's football machine reached the peak of its power this afternoon and, with the throttle wide open and Maurice Wade, the Mountain Grove thunderbolt, at the controls, Don Faurot's Tigers crushed an amazed and stunned Oklahoma University squad, 28 to 0.

With a homecoming crowd of 27,000 old grads, students and gridiron fans shouting their approval, Wade reeled off touchdown runs of 23 and 35 yards, cracked through from the one-yard line for another six points and even threw a 26-yard pass to set up that score and complete a brilliant afternoon's work of bewildering the Sooners.

Bert Ekern caught a 29-yard pass from Bob Steuber for the other Missouri touchdown and Steuber converted four points after touchdowns with place kicks as the Tigers virtually clinched the Big Six Conference championship and made a pretty curtsy toward those with bowl bid intentions.

Mizzou gained 303 yards on the ground to OU’s 53; the dominance was so thorough that voters had no choice but to notice — Mizzou rose all the way from 16th to eighth in the next week’s AP poll.

November 22: No. 8 Missouri 45, Kansas 6

Harry Ice rolls for 46 yards then laterals to Bob Brenton, who rumbles three yards into the end zone.

Ice scores on a 57-yard run.

Bob Steuber scores on a 55-yard run.

Wade scores on a 23-yarder.

Mizzou’s new offensive system almost worked better in inclement weather. The misdirection aspect of the option attack was leaving defenders wrong-footed anyway. Add slippery turf to the equation, and it was almost unfair.

The Tigers were also much, much better than Kansas in 1941.

Mizzou wrapped up an undefeated Big Six campaign by romping over the Jayhawks, 45-6. Despite a wintry mix of rain, sleet, and snow, the Tigers rolled up 494 yards of offense and scored the most points in the history of the rivalry to date. Steuber carried 10 times for 156 yards, but he was overshadowed by Ice, who rushed eight times for 240 yards, setting a school record that stood until Devin West broke it 57 years later (against Kansas, naturally).

Harry Ice
Harry Ice’s 240 rushing yards against Kansas stood in Mizzou’s record books for quite a while.
The Savitar

A cold, wet Homecoming crowd of 14,000 in Lawrence went home disappointed. Mizzou went home the conference champ.

In the final AP poll of the season, Missouri finished seventh in what Don Faurot had expected to be a bit of a rebuilding year. It was the Tigers’ second top-10 finish in three years, and it earned them their second bowl trip.

This time they were off to New Orleans to face Eastern powerhouse Fordham.

January 1: No. 8 Fordham 2, No. 7 Missouri 0

Bo Schembechler lost his first six bowl games as Michigan head coach. Bear Bryant went 0-7-1 in bowls over an eight-year span in the middle of his Alabama tenure. Don Faurot went 0-4 in bowls, but at least he had some lofty company.

Some coaches either didn’t emphasize bowl performance as much as others or simply suffered some bad breaks. The 1942 Sugar Bowl likely fit into the latter category. I can talk all I want to about how a sloppy track helped Mizzou’s misdirection, but the track at Tulane Stadium on January 1, 1942, was really, really sloppy.

The Fordham-Missouri score wasn't a surprise. It was compliment to the two teams who were forced to play on a field that resembled a Louisiana bayou.

Fordham's two points came early in the first period when Don Greenwood, Missouri end, dropped back to punt and the water-logged boot was blocked by Tackle Alex Santilli of the Rams. The ball squirted through the end zone before Stan Ritinski, Fordham flanker, got control of it.

That was all the scoring the 73,000 spectators, most of them peeking from beneath umbrellas, saw although each club gained approximately 150 yards and the supposedly non-passing midwesterners completed three aerials in five tries.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 2, 1942

Mizzou was especially sloppy early on. A Wade fumble led to a 12-yard loss on the Tigers' first possession, and on the ensuing punt, Fordham's Steve Hudacek broke through the line to block it out of the end zone for a safety.

A 33-yard run by Ice and a 17-yard pass set Mizzou up in scoring position, but Steuber lost a fumble. In the second quarter, Ice was stripped at the end of a 32-yard run, and Fordham recovered. In the third quarter, Steuber ripped off a nice kick return and a 14-yard run but threw an interception at the Fordham 18.

Self-inflicted wounds made the difference in this one.

Still, Mizzou needed to make one more play than it made. And despite their second top-10 finish in three years, the Tigers fell to 0-2 in bowls.

That could only detract so much from the combination of accomplishment and sheer potential Mizzou pulled off in 1941. The Tigers would head into 1942 with most of their stars returning from an offense that only one team had been able to slow down, and Fordham had help from a 12th defender named Mother Nature.

Of course, they also headed into 1942 with war imminent.