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Missouri’s 2003 win over Nebraska exorcised too many demons to count

Let’s relive it!

Sarah Becking

There have been three moments at Faurot Field where I can remember nothing but unmitigated chaos and white noise.

  1. Corby Jones to Eddie Brooks.
  2. Sonny Riccio to Victor Sesay.
  3. Gahn McGaffie.

Mention any of these three plays to me, and my eyes will well up like my name is Larry Smith. Two of the three happened on Gary Pinkel’s watch, but only one resulted in me professing my love for a player on the field.

Sonny Riccio threw 22 passes in his Missouri career before transferring to Delaware to actually get some playing time. I remember only one of them. But you could make the case that it was one of the most important passes in Missouri history.

You know the story by heart, but I'm going to tell it anyway. It is October 11, 2003. Despite the most intense crowd in memory (somehow made more intense by a driving, first-half rainstorm), and despite a few early breaks and big plays, Missouri entered the fourth quarter of a Saturday night TBS game against the Huskers trailing by 10 points and staring a 25th consecutive loss to the Big Red Horde in the face.

Brad Smith began the final stanza with a 39-yard touchdown run to cut the lead to 24-21, then James Kinney and an unidentified lineman obliterated Husker quarterback Jammal Lord on third-and-long, forcing a fumble that Dedrick Harrington recovered and returned to the NU 9. But the drive stalled, and Mike Matheny lined up for a 31-yard field goal to tie the game.

Fun fact: I didn't actually see the entire play live. I turned my back because I was a complete wreck and couldn't watch the field goal attempt. I was waiting for the crowd to cheer and tell me the game was tied; instead, I heard The Beef shriek, "Oh, they FAKED it!"

His voice does not crack often, and it cracked like a sidewalk in an earthquake.

Sarah Becking

Heading into the Nebraska game, Gary Pinkel was 13-15 as Missouri’s head coach. There had been clear progress on the field compared to where the Tigers were under Larry Smith at the end of the 2000 season, but there had been little to show for it.

Pinkel's first season had featured wins over bad teams and losses to anyone with a pulse. The second season, which featured the emergence of star quarterback Brad Smith, was a giant tease. The season-opening win over defending Big Ten champion Illinois was a mirage; the Illini would go 5-7 that year. The incredible near-upset of Oklahoma was followed by a lot more frustrating losses — 24-13 to Nebraska, 42-35 to Iowa State, 42-35 to Colorado — and a 5-7 finish.

Even in 2003, the frustration was mounting. Mizzou had begun the season 4-0, but the Tigers had struggled to get by an eventual 1-11 Illinois team and Middle Tennessee. And the 4-0 start was interrupted by a humbling, humiliating 35-14 loss at Kansas.

There's a great old line from former Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden: "When you're trying to build a program, you go through four stages: You lose big, you lose close, you win close, and finally you start winning big."

Granted, not every program gets to win big, at least to the level of a Florida State, but the transition from the second stage to the third might be the most difficult. If you lose close too often, recruits start to lose faith, and boosters REALLY start to lose faith. Your opportunity to win, either close or big, begins to dissipate.

I'm not saying Mizzou needed this win over Nebraska, in the sense that, without it, the program would have crumbled to its foundation. But a win of that magnitude, statement win, a streak-breaker, was exactly what Pinkel's program was missing to that point.

The crowd was ready on that rainy night. The tailgate was long. The weather was rowdy. And unlike 1999 or 2001, when Mizzou fans had to use pure hope and unproven faith to believe their Tigers would finally beat Nebraska, there was actually belief in a leveling playing field. There was reason to believe that the Tigers were catching up to the Huskers from a talent standpoint.

(Vegas certainly shared this belief. In 1999, the Tigers were 17-point underdogs; in 2001, 24 points. In 2003, though? 7.5 points.)

Mizzou came out intense but unfocused. The Tigers forced an NU punt and quickly moved into Nebraska territory, but Smith was picked off by Josh Bullocks at the NU 26. Two plays later, the Huskers scored on a 55-yard screen pass to Mark LeFlore. But unlike previous years, where the spirit of both the team and fans was broken quickly, Mizzou kept it together enough to pounce on a break. When Josh Davis muffed a booming Brock Harvey punt at the Nebraska 6, James Kinney was there to recover it. Zack Abron scored over right end two plays later. 7-7.

(Kinney, by the way, played the game of his damn life that night. Seven tackles, two assists, three tackles for loss, a sack, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. Smith drew the obvious headlines with his 180 passing yards, 123 rushing yards, and 47 receiving yards, but Kinney might have been the best player on the field.)

Nebraska then fumbled again! The Huskers bumbled a short kickoff, and Mizzou quickly advanced inside the NU 10, but Smith was again picked off.

It was still 7-7 a few minutes into the second quarter when Mizzou broke out the trick plays. After working their way toward midfield following a punt, Smith rushed for 11 yards to set up a first down from the NU 47. Smith quickly fired a pass to Darius Outlaw behind the line of scrimmage, but Outlaw lobbed the ball back to Smith, who had a convoy of blockers. He tiptoed 47 yards down the left sideline. 14-7 Mizzou.

More fumbles! NU worked the ball inside the Mizzou red zone, but David Horne lost the ball, and Nino Williams recovered. The teams traded punts, and NU managed a 30-yard field goal as the first half was ending, but Mizzou took a 14-10 lead into the break.

The Tigers had survived the typical early onslaught of "Nebraska's in town!" emotion and come out ahead. But as with the Oklahoma game the year before, the third quarter brought doom. Mizzou got the ball but went three-and-out, and Nebraska drove 62 yards in 14 plays to take a 17-14 lead. Mizzou managed just one first down in two more drives, and Lord rushed 35 yards off right tackle to give Nebraska a 24-14 lead in the final minute of the quarter.

Fun fact: a good friend of mine was getting married that day! If the Mizzou game were against anyone else, I’d have probably convinced myself to go. But this was Nebraska. As hard as I tried to convince myself otherwise, I knew I would not be attending the wedding. Instead, I basically served as messenger. Every quarter or so, I was instructed to leave a message on a friend’s cell phone — this friend was clearly a better friend than I, but not so good a friend that they could forget about the game entirely.

During the TV timeout at the end of the third quarter, I dutifully called the friend’s phone and left a message that basically said, “Well, we’re down 10 now. The third quarter sucked. But we’re driving, and ... this just feels different. I can’t explain it, but I think Mizzou’s still okay here.”

(You always remember when your intuition is right and ignore all the times it’s not.)

Mizzou was indeed driving; Brad Ekwerekwu had taken the Nebraska kickoff out to the Mizzou 42, and after a pass to J.D. McCoy, the Tigers began maybe the best quarter in their history at the NU 39. And on the very first play, Smith raced 39 yards off left tackle for a touchdown.

Then the Lord fumble.

Then The Beef’s cracking voice.

Indeed, instead of going for a 24-24 tie, Mizzou went for the lead and got it. Riccio took the field goal snap, tucked it, and rolled right. He lobbed the ball to Sesay, who hauled it in for a 14-yard score. 28-24, 11:21 left.

The game technically wasn’t over, but ... it was over.

  • Nebraska goes three-and-out, and Marcus James returns the punt to the NU 36.
  • A few plays later, on second-and-goal, Smith goes in untouched for a one-yard score. 34-24, 5:53 left.
  • Terrence Curry sacks Lord, then defensive end Zach Ville drops into coverage on a perfect zone blitz. He picks off a pass and rumbles to the NU 7.
  • Second-and-goal from the nine: Smith up the middle. Touchdown. 41-24, 5:11 left.
  • Nebraska goes three-and-out again and waves the white flag. The Huskers punt, and James again returns the ball near midfield. The Tigers advance inside the NU 30 and absolutely could have scored again if they tried. Instead, they finish a 27-0 fourth quarter in victory formation.

They sold posters of the fans rushing the field everywhere in Columbia. It said “VICTORY” at the top. I still have one in my basement. There were scenes, there were tears, and there were all sorts of exorcised demons. Even if Pinkel hadn’t delivered a single other thing as Mizzou head coach, he had ended The Streak.

Sarah Becking

We think back on this game as a turning point. In reality, it was anything but.

Mizzou finished 2003 by winning out at home and losing out away from it. The Tigers fell to Arkansas, 27-14, in the Independence Bowl, then suffered repeated blown leads and crippling losses in a 5-6 campaign in 2004. If there were a true turning point in that span, it happened when Chase Daniel committed to Mizzou in the summer of 2004, then remained loyal to the Tigers even after the frustrating fall. He was the highest-ranking commitment in a class that impressed no one and changed the program.

But we'll get to that some other day.

As for the declaration of love? After the game, while racing to the 50-yard line to meet The Beef, ZouDave and others, I passed Riccio getting interviewed by Rod Smith of Rod's Big Ol' Fish fame (ah, mid-Missouri). I grabbed him by the shoulder pads and said, "I love you so much." His response? "Uh ... thanks!" I don't think this is why he ended up transferring, but I cannot be so sure.

Sarah Becking

Note: part of this first appeared in a 2011 Rock M Nation post.