Nothing ever came easy for Gary Pinkel at Missouri. Before he could end Missouri’s long losing streak against Nebraska, he had to get Eric Crouch’d in 2001 and suffer a disappointing dud of a loss in Lincoln in 2002. Before he could win the Big 12 North in 2007, he had to deal with missed opportunities in 2003 and 2004 (and 2005 and 2006).
And before he could get the Oklahoma monkey off of his back, he had to let that monkey get on his back to begin with. Granted, it established official residence in 2007, when the Tigers lost twice to OU and went 12-0 against everybody else. But the niggling, crimson and cream what-ifs began on a Saturday evening in October 2002.
Bob Stoops’ third-ranked Oklahoma Sooners came to town, and Brad Smith introduced himself to the world. It was almost enough.
When I decided to write about this game, I realized I basically remembered three things from it:
- Brad Smith going nuts.
- Smith’s fourth-quarter touchdown run, which gave Mizzou a 24-23 lead. I distinctly remember celebrating and hugging The Beef ... and both of us saying “THIS IS AMAZING. WE’RE STILL GOING TO LOSE.”
- Matt McCoy’s stupid fake field goal pass to stupid Chris Chester, which was covered as well as you’ll see a fake field goal covered but still worked. (It created another demon for Pinkel to exorcise — the next year against Nebraska, Sonny Riccio’s fake field goal pass to Victor Sesay happened in almost exactly the same spot.)
Since we all seem to agree that this was an amazing game, I felt I would take the opportunity to relive it. You can watch it above, and you can follow the play-by-play here.
Mizzou receiver Justin Gage enters the game needing just one catch to set Mizzou’s career receptions record. He of course did that in just three seasons because his freshman season was wasted — he was a QB in Larry Smith’s offense, and a desperate Smith tore his redshirt off in the ninth game of the year against OU.
Mizzou’s starting defense:
- Defensive line: Antwaun Bynum, Keith Wright, Russ Bell (a former shot-putter), and Atiyyah Ellison.
- Linebackers: Sean Doyle, James Kinney, Jason Simpson.
- Defensive backs: R.J. Jones, Tauras Ferguson, Marcus King, Michael Harden.
It’s midway through Pinkel’s second year, but he’s still starting, by my count, only four Pinkel signees, plus two walk-ons (Bell and Harden).
OU gets the ball first and, with the crowd going wild, creates an early break by converting a third-and-long with a pass from Nate Hybl to Curtis Fagan. Hybl hits Will Peoples for a 38-yard gain, but Tauras Ferguson sacks Hybl for a huge loss on a busted play, and the Sooners have to settle for a field goal. Trey DiCarlo pushes it wide.
Smith and Zach Abron do most of the damage early for Mizzou; they rush five times for 28 yards to advance into OU territory. But a short pass turns tight end Ben Fredrickson around and falls to the turf, throwing the Tigers behind schedule. Gage gets his catch — a one-yarder — but Mizzou is forced to punt.
Another big pass to Peoples — this one for 16 yards — gets OU out near midfield, but Mizzou stiffens and forces another punt. OU then does the same; Smith is sacked on first down, and the Tigers go three-and-out. Brock Harvey punts from Mizzou’s 10, and a face mask penalty sets OU up at the Tiger 45.
OU takes advantage of the good field position. On third-and-1 from the Mizzou 36, Hybl goes deep for Antwone Savage on a pretty play-action; he catches it and is tackled at the 1. Kejuan Jones scores on the next play. 7-0 Oklahoma, 1:05 left.
Mizzou quickly goes three-and-out again, and it’s danger time again. The last play of the first quarter is a 44-yard Harvey punt that Peoples returns for 24 yards to the Mizzou 48.
One play into the second quarter, Quin Snyder is on the TV screen! The fourth-year Mizzou basketball coach does a sideline interview, talking about Justin Gage, the 2002 Elite Eight run, and incoming JUCO guard Ricky Clemons. Gulp. It’s like that scene in a horror movie when you start yelling at the character who’s about to meet a grisly demise. TURN BACK! DON’T GO INTO THE HOUSE.
Meanwhile, on the field, while color commentator Dave Lapham is gushing about how good-looking a man Snyder is, Mizzou holds. Sean Doyle tracks Quentin Griffin down on a shovel pass, and Ferguson, playing a fantastic game, breaks up a third-down pass. Blake Ferguson’s punt goes for a touchback. Then, on third-and-5 from the Mizzou 25, Smith breaks off his first huge gain of the day. He fakes the handoff to Abron and finds a huge alley off right tackle. He races 38 yards down the right sideline and steps out of bounds OU 44.
After Abron is stopped for no gain, however, Smith is picked off by Blue Springs native Brandon Shelby over the middle. Shelby returns it 30 yards, and a 27-yard pass to Griffin quickly sets OU up for first-and-goal. OU commits back-to-back false starts, however, and stalls again. DiCarlo makes his second field goal attempt. 10-0 Oklahoma, 9:00 left.
Mizzou’s offense responds. A quick screen to Darius Outlaw picks up 11 yards, and on third-and-8 from the Mizzou 39, Smith hits Gage on a short bubble screen. Gage bounces off of a blocker but keeps his balance and splits the middle of the OU defense for a 46-yard gain. Mizzou quickly finds itself in third-and-7 again, and this time a short pass to Gage is hemmed in. Still, the Tigers put them in position to get on the scoreboard. Unfortunately, Mike Matheny bonks a 26-yard field goal off the left upright.
The offense doesn’t have to wait long to find redemption. OU goes three-and-out, the Tigers get the ball at midfield, and it’s the Brad Smith Show. He rushes off left tackle for 15 yards on third-and-3, then he goes off right tackle and breaks a set of ankle tackles for a 25-yard touchdown. 10-7 Oklahoma, 1:50 left. Faurot Field is alive.
Mizzou stuffs Griffin on third-and-2 on OU’s ensuing drive, the Sooners punt, and Mizzou goes into halftime down three. The Tigers will get the ball to start the second half.
The second half starts horribly for the home team. Smith is stuffed for a four-yard loss on the opening play, and after a 10-yard pass to Fredrickson, Smith comes up a yard short on third-and-4. Harvey booms a 47-yard punt, but on third-and-6 from the 35, Hybl hits Fagan on a short pass; R.J. Jones goes for the pick and misses, and Fagan outruns Simpson for a 65-yard touchdown. 17-7 Oklahoma, 11:25 left.
It gets worse. Mizzou quickly goes three-and-out again, and on the second play of the ensuing OU drive, Griffin breaks a Doyle tackle and races 53 yards over left guard. DiCarlo misses the PAT, but OU has taken complete control. 23-7 Oklahoma, 8:57 left.
It’s nice to have a Justin Gage. In desperate need of a rebound, Mizzou leans on the senior. He catches a nine-yard pass, then catches a 27-yard lob down the left sideline on a double move. Smith moves the chains with two rushes, then goes back to Gage. He fires a slant into a tight window, and Gage breaks into the open for a 23-yard score. Mizzou elects to kick the PAT instead of going for two, annoying 24-year old me. 23-14 Oklahoma, 5:27 left.
Faurot Field is alive again! Mizzou forces a three-and-out, and Abron rumbles* 33 yards to start the ensuing drive. Smith breaks off an 11-yard gain, and while the drive stalls at the OU 20 — Gage very nearly catches a touchdown pass along the right sideline but is ruled out of bounds — Matheny clips a 38-yarder just inside the right post. After the post-halftime shakiness, Mizzou is right back in the game. 23-17 Oklahoma, 1:07 left.
* “Rumble” is the only verb you can use for a long Abron run. This run included a defensive back bouncing off of him and a face mask penalty that was missed. Abron was so much fun.
Griffin breaks off a 27-yard run, and OU begins the fourth quarter facing a second-and-7 from the Mizzou 39, clinging to a six-point lead.
Special teams made a huge difference in this game, costing both teams at random times. OU stalls out at the Mizzou 26, and DiCarlo misses his third kick of the evening — a 43-yarder goes wide left. It’s time for Brad Smith to make some magic.
The ease of Mizzou’s ensuing touchdown drive, with a redshirt freshman quarterback slicing up a Bob Stoops defense, sends a lightning bolt through the Mizzou fanbase. As I wrote at the top, my best friend and I still joked that Mizzou was definitely going to lose this game, but how could you not start to believe something special is beginning when you see this?
- First-and-10 from the Mizzou 26: Smith backs up to pass and, finding no one open, leaves the pocket and breaks upfield. Hemmed in, he looks like he’s going to trot out of bounds but instead bursts ahead for another 10 yards or so. (He pulled this trick off a few times in the first few games. It would quickly stop working.)
- Third-and-10 from the OU 37: OU blitzes, and Smith fires a crossing pass to Outlaw for a 12-yard gain.
- Third-and-10 from the OU 25: the play. I’ll isolate it for you.
It feels like we ended up seeing that exact play 30 more times in Smith’s career. A planned draw off tackle, one move and a burst upfield. But this was against Oklahoma. There was a buzz inside Faurot that hadn’t been there since the 1997 Nebraska game. 24-23 Mizzou, 10:22 left. Smith has 19 carries for 180 yards and two scores. Against Oklahoma.
The defense gets in on the act. Peoples catches a 31-yard pass to start the drive, but Kinney sacks Hybl for a loss of 10 on the ensuing third down. Mizzou gets the ball back with the lead.
Unfortunately, things go awry. Smith takes a huge hit from linebacker Lance Mitchell and looks wobbly. He leaves the game for one play, and Mizzou commits a false start with Kirk Farmer behind center. Smith re-enters the game but telegraphs a slant to Gage and is picked off by Brandon Everage at the Mizzou 16.
Mizzou’s defense has been phenomenal since Griffin’s touchdown run, and it continues here. Bynum and Doyle stop Renaldo Works for a short gain, Hybl throws back-to-back incompletions, and the Tigers have made another stop. DiCarlo steps onto the field again. He’s already missed three kicks, so you figure a fake is a potential option. And Mizzou has it covered. Kinney james Chris Chester reasonably well at the line of scrimmage, and King races to cover Chester over the top. And McCoy, a safety who got juked out of his shoes on Smith’s go-ahead touchdown run, throws a damn strike. The fake was covered, and it worked anyway. Hybl finds Fagan for the two-point conversion. 31-24 Sooners, 6:33 left.
Every fan base is cynical. Anytime a bad break happens, we mask our disappointment with sarcasm. “Pssh, typical [home team]. I knew that would happen.” Mizzou’s fan base was bracing for the worst, and it happened. And then it happens again: on third-and-10 from the Mizzou 40, Smith goes deep and is picked off for a third time, this time by Eric Bassey.
Mizzou’s defense holds yet again, though. OU bleeds two and a half minutes off the clock but goes three-and-out, and with 1:39 left, Smith gets one last chance. Mizzou starts at its 23 ... and Smith goes off tackle for 17 yards. An OU penalty moves the ball to midfield, and on fourth-and-4 with 43 seconds left, Smith gains five yards. But the magic ends. On fourth-and-6, with five seconds left, he is sacked. Smith finishes with 213 rushing yards and 178 passing yards on his way to a 2,000-1,000 season, but OU survives.
Sometimes you get your proof of concept in a loss. Mizzou couldn’t get the job done but proved everything it might be able to become under Gary Pinkel at the same time. A year later, the Tigers exorcized the fake field goal demon and the Flea Kicker demon at the same time. Eight long years later, they’d finally get Stoops, too.