Once more: This is a look at 20 games in which a) the combined quality of Missouri and its opponent was really, really high (they're ranked in order of combined S&P+ percentile ratings), and b) Mizzou won.
Just three games into the 1976 season, Missouri had proven it was capable of absolutely anything. The Tigers had beaten two of the best teams in the country, pasting USC by three touchdowns and coming back to beat Ohio State with a backup quarterback. And in between, they had lost by 25 points to a pretty mediocre Illinois team.
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Once you've set those baselines, almost anything is possible. Mizzou proved that week after week through the final eight games of 1976.
First up came a visit from North Carolina. The Tigers had gone from unranked to sixth to unranked to 12th, and Bill Dooley's Tar Heels came to Columbia ranked 14th, having already taken down two ranked teams (No. 20 Miami-Ohio by four, No. 18 Florida by three in Tampa).
No. 12 Mizzou 24, No. 14 UNC 3
The Heels didn't have a chance. Curtis Brown, coming off of such a great game in Columbus, rushed for 161 yards, burying UNC with a 52-yard, third-quarter score that made it 21-3. Mizzou outgained UNC -- a good team! -- by a 530-182 margin, and the only reason the final was as close as 24-3 was that the Tigers lost four fumbles.
No. 9 Mizzou 28, Kansas State 21
Now ninth in the AP poll, Mizzou traveled to Kansas State and nearly fell asleep. KSU scored three first-half touchdowns with an all-freshman backfield and took a 21-14 lead into the break. Leo Lewis scored on a 10-yard end around late in the third quarter to tie the game (he also caught a 23-yard score from Woods in the first half). Finally, midway through the fourth quarter, Mizzou's Rich Dansdill ripped off a 31-yard score to give Mizzou the lead and the game, 28-21. Mizzou outgained KSU, 384-297, but once again, issues with fumbles had hurt.
Still, Dansdill finished with 17 yards, Brown with 99. Bullet dodged, right? Now Mizzou could return to its previous form, right? Of course not. At 4-1 and No. 7 in the AP poll (just ahead of both No. 8 USC and No. 9 Ohio State), Missouri hosted Iowa State and fell victim to an upset.
Iowa State 21, No. 7 Mizzou 17
Now, ISU wasn't bad. Earle Bruce's Cyclones would finish 8-3 and would beat Nebraska in Ames in November. Still, once you've set the bar where Mizzou had, this was nothing but a letdown.
In front of a Homecoming crowd of 66,691, ISU struck first and second. Cyclone running back Dexter Green sprinted down the left sideline for a 65-yard score, and a second Green touchdown made it 14-0. A trick-play pass to quarterback Wayne Stanley made it 21-3, but Missouri stayed within striking distance because of Joe Stewart's juggling, 43-yard catch and run late in the half.
As had been the case from the Ohio State game onward, Missouri held ISU scoreless in the second half; the Tigers ended up outgaining ISU, 519-421, as well. But Mizzou was called for seven penalties to ISU's three. One flag was particularly costly. Mizzou trailed by only 21-17 because of a 56-yard Dansdill surge up the middle, and with under five minutes left, Leo Lewis ripped off a wiggly, dazzling 77-yard punt return for a score that appeared to give Mizzou the lead. But a clipping penalty got it called back. The scoring was over, and ISU won by four.
No. 17 Mizzou 34, No. 3 Nebraska 24
Naturally, then, Mizzou responded with a road win over No. 3 Nebraska, one we've already covered in this series.
Unfortunately, the schedule kept packing on the challenges, and Missouri wasn't quite able to avoid faltering.
No. 16 Oklahoma State 20, No. 10 Missouri 19
One key note: The Big 8 was incredible in 1976. Seven of eight teams -- even Kansas and ISU -- would spend part of the season ranked, and when Mizzou headed to Stillwater on October 30, the Tigers had to face probably the best Cowboy squad since the 1940s. Mizzou was No. 10, and OSU was No. 16, the Tigers' fifth ranked opponent of the year. (Two more would follow.) You play enough really good teams, and you're going to lose to some of them.
Still, the OSU loss was particularly frustrating. An 11-yard strike from Woods to Lewis gave the Tigers a 10-0 haltime lead, which stretched to 16-0 when Stewart returned the second-half kickoff 100 yards for a score.
And then OSU junior back Terry Miller got going. He raced for a 23-yard score to make it 16-7. OSU got the ball back with a suprise onside kick, and while OSU's Charley Weatherbie lost a fumble at the MU 5, Mizzou responded with a fumbled exchange at the 9. Miller scored his second touchdown three plays later.
A 47-yard bomb from Tim Gibbons stretched Mizzou's advantage back to 19-14, but Miller was rolling, and the Missouri defense, on the field for almost the entire third quarter, was tiring.
Miller raced for 131 yards after halftime (Mizzou gained only 110), and his 10-yard jaunt with eight-minutes left made it 20-19 OSU after a failed two-point conversion. On fourth-and-2 from the OSU 37, with little time left, Woods lobbed a pass to a wide open Brown, but it was slightly too high. The ball fell to the turf, and Mizzou's shot at a Big 8 title fell with it.
** No. 16 Missouri 16, No. 14 Colorado 7 **
That brought Colorado to town. Mizzou, exhausted and reeling at 5-3, would win one final game, and it was against a Buffalo team that my numbers loved. Bill Mallory's Buffaloes had just taken down OSU, ISU, and Oklahoma back-to-back-to-back and stood at 6-2 with the Big 8 title in their sites.
When Pisarkiewicz's elbow required he site on the bench for a while, he was just two passing yards short of Missouri's all-time record (Paul Christman's 3,056). Back in the lineup, he secured the record on his first pass, a 15-yarder to to Joe Stewart. CU scored first with a 13-play, 80-yard drive, but a 45-yard Lewis kick return set Mizzou up at midfield, and on the 10th play of the ensuing drive, Pisarkiewicz fired a 15-yard missile to Lewis to tie the game. And then the defenses took over.
It was still 7-7 heading into the fourth quarter; late in the third, Woods replaced an ice cold Pisarkiewicz and led Mizzou on a 10-play, 73-yard scoring drive. Colorado was called for pass interference on fourth-and-goal, and Brown went in from the 1 with 12:28 left. The conversion was no good, and Mizzou led 13-7.
Then it was time for Rob Fitzgerald to seal the deal. He stepped in front of a pass from CU's Jeff Austin, and Woods connected with Kellen Winslow to the CU 5. A 19-yard field goal from Gibbons all but put the game away, 16-7.
CU kept marching, and Mizzou kept resisting. Billy Waddy tipped a pass that Jim Leavitt intercepted to end one drive, and with under a minute left, Mizzou stuffed the Buffs on fourth-and-goal from the 2.
No. 14 Oklahoma 27, No. 11 Missouri 20
The deathmarch continued with a trip to Norman. And against its fourth straight ranked opponent, Mizzou nearly made one hell of a comeback. The Tigers took an early lead over Barry Switzer's Sooners with an 11-yard touchdown from Woods to Lewis, but leading 13-10 at halftime, OU seized control in the third quarter. Thomas Lott ripped off a 49-yard touchdown run, and Kenny King followed with a 23-yarder. OU led, 27-10, heading into the fourth quarter.
Mizzou wasn't done, though. Young Earl Gant caught a 33-yard pass from Pisarkiewicz, and a 22-yard Gibbons field goal got Mizzou to within 27-20.
A year earlier against OU, Brown came off the bench to rush for 153 rushing yards, keying a huge second-half comeback that saw Mizzou turn a 20-0 deficit into just a 28-27 loss. This time around in Norman, Gant was the backup bolt of lightning. He caught five passes for 76 yards and rushed six times for 51 yards, and his touchdown required a powerful second effort.
Mizzou got a couple of final chances to take the game. First, Chris Garlich recovered a Lott fumble near midfield, and Mizzou drove inside the OU 15 before Zark, under pressure, was picked off by Terry Peters.
Mizzou got the ball back at its 8 with under two minutes left. Pisarkiewicz found Lewis for 20 yards. (Lewis was injured on the play.) Mizzou kept moving but came up inches short on fourth down at the OU 15 with 10 seconds left.
For a second straight year, Mizzou had mighty OU in its sights but couldn't come up with a win. And in the strangest of seasons, there was now a five-way tie for first place in the Big 8 between OU, Nebraska, Iowa State, Colorado, and Oklahoma State. Mizzou was now, at 3-3, out of the race.
Kansas 41, No. 19 Missouri 14
Mizzou was done. And Kansas knew it. And after so many close calls, so many what-ifs against good teams that had knocked the Tigers out of the conference race, the Tigers crumbled. Bud Moore's 5-5 Jayhawks, two-touchdown underdogs, came to Columbia and ended a memorable season on the most sour of notes.
After a scoreless first quarter, KU opened the scoring with a 29-yard field goal and then didn't stop for a while. The Jayhawks went up 10-0 on a pick six, scored twice more before half, then scored twice more in the third quarter. Down 34-0 after three, Missouri scored a couple of times late, the damage was done. Mizzou lost, 41-17, and in a season that featured five Mizzou wins over ranked teams (three over top-10 teams), the Tigers finished 6-5, serenaded by a crowd chanting "A.O. must go."
Al Onofrio would last one more year on the job, but the damage was done. He had proven how high Missouri could fly in 1976, which made the downward spirals (usually against Kansas) that much harder to take.