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Missouri looks to channel its giant-killer roots of days past

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Today’s as good a time as any for the biggest Missouri upset in years.

Missouri v Purdue Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Missouri has played Alabamas before.

They went by different names, but they were all Alabamas. Sometimes the front of the jersey may have read Oklahoma or Nebraska or Notre Dame or Texas or even Alabama.

They were all Alabamas.

This won’t be the first Alabama and this won’t be the last Alabama that Missouri plays. Missouri’s lost most of the games against Alabamas, in fact. But the wins — oh, man, the wins. A shocking loss is devastating because you get blindsided by it.

A shocking win is the antipode, then. It’s life-giving. It’s program-saving. It can write the future and erase the past, if only for a week.

Missouri beat one of these Alabamas in 1975.

That Alabama was ranked No. 2 in the nation; Al Onofrio’s Tigers beat them 20-7. That Alabama had Bear Bryant as a coach, a legend stalking the sidelines.

Rob Fitzgerald was a defensive back on that Missouri team. He usually played cornerback; for that season-opener against Alabama at Legion Field in Birmingham, he played safety. Three years earlier, Missouri beat No. 8 Notre Dame in South Bend, a truly stunning upset because the Tigers had lost to Oklahoma 62-0 the week prior.

That Notre Dame game may have started the giant-killer reputation of Missouri under Onofrio, but it wasn’t until 1975 that the reputation began to take off.

“It was something that was an opportunity, instead of something to be dreaded or worried about what will happen if we lose,” Fitzgerald said. “It was more like, ‘This is exciting.’

“We were never overwhelmed, I guess would be my overall feeling about the team. We were never overwhelmed, no matter where we went, who we played. The moment was never too big for any of us. And I don’t know whether that was out of ignorance or arrogance. It could have been any one of those.”

Missouri beat Alabama handily 20-7 in 1975. While the specifics of that game are lost to Fitzgerald, he still remembers the Tigers controlling the game.

“Damn, we got this,” Fitzgerald said after Missouri scored to open the game. “We got this. We can do this.”

“Richard Todd was their quarterback; Ozzie Newsome was their split end at the time,” Fitzgerald said. “They had great running backs. And, I don’t know what it was ... just dominated them. They ran the wishbone, or a version of it, and they couldn’t get any momentum against us.”

One story in particular stands out to Fitzgerald. At one point, after coming off the field following a defensive series, he sat with teammate Mike Newman.

“Jim Lampley comes up,” Fitzgerald said. “Obviously I recognized him later in life, but he was a young guy then, and he says, ‘How are you guys doing this to Alabama?’

“I just blurted out something that was incoherent, because no one ever told me it was on TV. It was that feeling that hit from him, ‘Wow, you guys are doing something that no one thought you could do.’ And I was kind of going, ‘Yeah, isn’t this cool? Amazing.’”

Years later, Fitzgerald now wishes he could have a do-over on that exchange. In a game he’ll never regret, never forget, this is what he’d wished he’d said:

“We played for ourselves and each other... We feared no team, and we never needed a fiery speech. We provided the fire.”

That giant-killer moniker officially stuck the following year, when Missouri beat eight-ranked USC and second-ranked Ohio State on the road in two of the first three weeks of the season. Of course, in between Missouri lost to unranked Illinois, and would lose again to unranked Iowa State — those perplexing losses becoming as defining to this era as these giant-killing wins. In that way, the Onofrio era has been the bizarro version of the Barry Odom era, where Missouri destroys the bad teams and loses to any good team.

The Jekyll-and-Hyde play of the 70s led to this Sports Illustrated article in 1976:

We have come to expect that the Yo-Yos will race onto the field and beat the brains out of hotshots like Ohio State, Alabama and USC. Then the next week they stumble out and lose to the likes of Catch as Catch Can University and the all-star team from the men’s church league. Coach Al Onofrio says, “We don’t think of ourselves as a roller coaster team.” Maybe, but since 1972 Missouri has scored nine huge upset victories involving the nation’s top teams, and six of them have come on the road. But some of the losses in between have caused giggles. And it seems the more injuries Missouri has, the better it does.

Against the good teams, Fitzgerald says Onofrio’s Tigers never lost focus — something that has been missing from the team (and missing from most teams, honestly) over the last few years.

“I can’t tell you what the difference is,” Fitzgerald said. “We just never lost our focus so we completed the game, so we beat them. We never let up. We got them down and then kept pounding them.”

Missouri gets a shot at another Alabama on Saturday. This Alabama looks unbeatable.

They always do.

Missouri-Alabama football game time, TV channel

Time: 6 p.m. CT

Date: Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018

Location: Bryant-Denny Stadium, Tuscaloosa, Ala.

TV channel: ESPN

Missouri-Alabama football watch online

Fans can watch the Missouri-Alabama football game online at WatchESPN.com or with the WatchESPN app.

Missouri-Alabama football odds, preview

As of Thursday night, Missouri is a 28-point underdog to Alabama with an over/under set at 74 points, according to VegasInsider.com.