Sunday, September 30, 2007

Mizzou-Nebraska Redux: 1997 (Part Four)

November 10, 1997

It has been so long since the Missouri Tigers were nationally ranked, the last time they were included in the poll it was called the Top 20.

That was 1983 when Missouri was rated No. 19 for one week in late November, but lost to Kansas to fall out of the poll.

Yesterday, the Tigers (6-4) marked their return by entering the AP poll at No. 25 after their 45-38 overtime loss to unbeaten Nebraska.

“That's good. You salvage something out of a loss and very rarely do you see a 6-4 team being ranked,” MU coach Larry Smith said. “I don't know if that was a sentimental vote or what, but I think that's good for our players.”

Missouri, one of five Big 12 teams in the Top 25, is the only ranked team with four losses. But three of the MU defeats have come against top 10 teams.


Game of the century

Have we ever seen a better one?

I've watched football in MU stadiums for 45 years, and, without doubt, Saturday's game between our Tigers and the Huskers of Nebraska was the best.

How could a football game anywhere, any time, be any better?

It could not have been closer. Nebraska tied the game with no time on the clock and went on to win in overtime. There were few penalties and few errors on either team. Despite growing tension and excitement on the field, good sportsmanship prevailed. Every time one team would get ahead, the other would come raging back. It was like a heavyweight bout in which both fighters keep slugging right to the end.

Nobody really lost that game Saturday.

What a scene at Faurot Field! More than 65,000 people jammed the stadium. Everyone stood up almost the entire time. The continual level of excitement was unbelievable.

It's hard to overestimate the boost this game gave Missouri's football program and coach Larry Smith. It would have been even better if the Tigers had done the impossible by winning, but this kind of loss is hardly less impressive. Our players and coaches could not have made us more proud.

What a confidence builder for the young men. These players know they can beat any team in the nation on a given day, a far cry from the defeatist attitude they and their ancestors had developed over the past 10 years. This moment represents about as conclusive a turnaround as a sports program can have.

I know, it's only a football game, not the most momentous happening in the world that day, nor even in Columbia, where surely issues of life or death were played out. But we should be glad a mere entertainment event can transform us. Football Saturday permeates the whole community. Anyone, everyone, can join in. We can get back to the heavy stuff tomorrow.

We haven't seen a football weekend like this for 20 years. If our team remains competitive, the infection will live again, but at what level?

Football mania is a disease we thought had disappeared, but it only turned out to be dormant. We went crazy again in an instant. Most citizens hereabouts -- and the managers of Harpo's -- hope our fits of temporary insanity become chronic again.

But we're a fickle lot. No doubt, we'll expect too much. We'll be ready to snarl and hiss the first time our team seems to let us down. When that negative urge moves us, let's remember Saturday.



November 10, 1997

If you were at Faurot Field, if you own a television, if you subscribe to a newspaper, you already know what happened.

So who we are basically ruling out here are Mir astronauts and those currently holed up in militia compounds.

The rest of us can expect to be reminded that Nebraska went and ruined a perfectly good upset of the decade. Scott Frost to Shevin Wiggins, to Wiggins' foot, to ... oh, you know the rest. How could you not?

The task for the 25th-ranked Missouri Tigers (6-4 overall, 4-3 Big 12) is to somehow put Saturday's 45-38 loss to the undefeated Cornhuskers behind and mount enough emotion to dispose of Baylor (2-7, 1-5) in the regular season finale at Faurot Field.

It will be the mother of anticlimaxes, and that naturally worries MU coach Larry Smith.

“Players put everything on the field. There's nothing left in the team in that locker room,” Smith said after the loss. “It's total devastation. Our biggest job now is to bounce back.”

The Tigers were not in the mood for talk of moral victories Saturday evening. They had come too close to the real thing.

“It would have just meant the world to win this game,” MU tailback Brock Olivo said. “We're not going to look back and say, `Well, we played a good game. It's a moral victory.' We're looking for the real victory now. I don't believe in moral victories any more.”

That's a sign that these Tigers aren't the cuddly Tigers of the last 13 years. But a bit of perspective please.

Nebraska, the best football team in the nation in the 1990s, needed a fluke play to beat the Tigers. This is the same Nebraska program that routinely swoops down into Missouri every winter and snatches whichever high school players it thinks it can use. Native Missourians Grant Wistrom, Mike Rucker, Steve Warren -- all of them in Nebraska's defensive two-deep chart – and promising running back Dan Alexander are examples.

How many of the current Tigers were wanted by Nebraska? Corby Jones, recent NU transfer David Webber and maybe a handful of others were deemed worthy of a scholarship offer.

Missouri proved on Saturday that its band of slightly irregulars and factory seconds could play with the best. Sports fans across the country noticed. How could they not?

“I think we have some respectability back,” Smith said. “We still have a game, maybe two left. The bottom line is what do we do with where we are. I don't think there's any Missouri fan or player that's ashamed of that game. But it will still be in the record books as a loss, so that's certainly no reprieve or any consolation.

“The big thing is you take that kind of effort and keep that kind of spirit, we can win a lot of football games and have a lot of fun.”



November 10, 1997

After years of waiting for the right moment to pull off the win that would change the direction of a struggling football program, it was a loss that vaulted Missouri into national prominence.

Every football fan in the nation outside of Nebraska left the television set Saturday evening feeling some of the anguish in the Missouri locker room.

It wasn't just losing the moment of glory that comes with a heavy underdog upsetting a No. 1-ranked team, it was the way it was stripped away. With a game-tying Nebraska touchdown coming on a play that would rank among the top five bizarre plays in college football history, spirits sank with the Tigers.

More important than the compassion was the respect Missouri had earned. “Anyone who was watching, they know this team is for real,” quarterback Corby Jones said.

The final score was Nebraska 45, Missouri 38, but the Huskers' reward for victory was a drop of two places from No. 1 to No. 3 in the Top 25. The Tigers, meanwhile, jumped into the last spot in the Top 25 for the first time since 1983.

Head coach Larry Smith has steadfastly refused to be concerned about the value of any national ranking, choosing to emphasize the final ranking “because that's the only one that matters.”

But in order to be there at the end you have to be in position to get there. For Missouri, the only team in the Top 25 with four losses -- three have come against top 10 teams -- being ranked puts it in prime position.

Consider that a win in the season finale against Baylor will keep Missouri in the Top 25 until the bowl games.

Then Missouri is one game away from finishing in the Top 25 at the season's end.

Talk about a quality loss. After a few stinkers in previous television appearances this season, Missouri sent a message that couldn't be overlooked.

The more the Tigers believed in themselves, the more others started to feel the same way. For most of Saturday's game, Missouri hardly looked like the outclassed foe. The only time Missouri showed it was unfamiliar with the situation was on a third-down play late in the game.

The Tigers tried a freeze play, hoping for Nebraska to make a mistake, rather than powering for a first down that would have won the game. Other than that, the Tigers were cool and confident.

A representative of the Alamo Bowl came to Columbia thinking the team was a long shot for the San Antonio postseason game, but left thinking the Tigers would be a hot commodity.

The crowd of 66,846 not only jogged the memories of days gone by at Missouri, but it also put the athletic department's accountants on an overtime schedule. A few more crowds like that and there will be an impact in the department budget.

“Attendance of that size could be the difference between an under-funded program becoming well-funded or at least even funded with the rest of the conference,” Missouri athletic director Joe Castiglione said. “Big crowds at football games can do a lot of things.”

Missouri players, overwhelmed by the crowd support, pleaded for the fans to return.

“I hope they don't throw in the towel and give up,” senior captain Brock Olivo said. “I hope they come back, we've got a lot more to get done.”

By Thursday of this week, Missouri players will begin to understand why this is all so important. Despair and disappointment still clouds their thinking.

“There was a time when just scoring on Nebraska would have been fun,” Olivo said. “If you're not ticked off, shoot, you don't belong here.”

Naturally. The opportunity to play the nation's top-ranked team doesn't occur every year. To be leading the No. 1 team in the final minute happens even less frequently.

For that, Missouri players lamented letting a once-in-a-lifetime moment slip away. Reddened eyes was part of the postgame uniform and it wasn't because of the air in the locker room.

Many of the nation's football fans suffered with them.



November 11, 1997

Missouri lost its game against Nebraska on Saturday but won a recruiting battle with the Cornhuskers the following day.

Justin Bland, a 6-foot-6, 300-pound offensive lineman from Chillicothe, who had narrowed his college choices to Missouri and Nebraska, committed to the Tigers on Sunday night.

He said MU's gutsy effort in a 45-38 overtime loss to Nebraska had “a little bit to do with my decision, but not really. I pretty much had my mind made up. I've always liked Missouri. They're my home state. And of course everybody around here wanted me to go to Missouri.”

Bland is the latest in a pipeline of small-town northern Missouri offensive linemen that has produced current Tigers Mike Morris and Todd Niemeyer of Brookfield, Cliff Smith of Chillicothe and Chris Ryan of Milan.

Bland is considered one of the elite offensive line prospects in the nation by Chicago-based recruiting expert Tom Lemming. He has been timed at 5.1 seconds in the 40-yard dash and was an all-state selection in football and basketball last year.


November 11, 1997

You wanted it. Now you've got it.

A winning football team. A nationally ranked football team. And crowds of more than 50,000 that fill the hotels, restaurants and roadways of Columbia.

Suddenly late arrivals to the game have no place to park and may be out of luck on their seats. The word “wait” is back in your vocabulary.

It's the price of progress. You waited 13 years, what's a few more minutes.

Hearnes Center executive director Tim Hickman, who supervises the concession sales at Faurot Field, said his people experienced no major catastrophes when 66,846 showed up for the Nebraska game Saturday. He was more than grateful for the recent improvements in Memorial Stadium.

“We have some new features and we had some games to work out the kinks, so I thought things went smoothly,” Hickman said. “But when you have 66,000 there's always going to be a crowd.”

Assistant athletic director Gene McArtor, who is in charge of game management, said the most commonly heard problems involved traffic control and seating arrangements in the general admission section.

McArtor said additional stadium security and ushers were added because of the large crowd. More public safety officers were involved on the public thoroughfares to help move the heavy traffic.

A major complaint was the decision to eliminate of turn lanes off Providence Road to South Hearnes Drive for the first time this season. Many unsuspecting drivers were caught in a time-consuming jam when highway patrol officers closed off the turn lanes.

McArtor said Missouri officials were surprised to hear about the difficulty and had not authorized the plan.

“I can't figure out why that happened,” he said.

Heavy traffic after the game was a problem, but McArtor said the exciting game had something to do with that. “Nobody left until the very end and then everyone tried to leave at once.”

Every Monday after football games, McArtor meets with key support people in administrating the stadium. No real dilemmas arose even though the school hasn't dealt with this volume of fans in 13 years.

“We always have a debriefing to see what problems are there and what we can do to cure those problems,” McArtor said. “That's what we want to do.”

One such problem occured in the south end zone when holders of Family Pack tickets found seating at a premium because much of the end zone had been sold as reserved seats. At previous games, fans could spread out in the end zone, but this time there was no room and the latecomers were in a pinch.

“That was something we had to resolve,” McArtor said.

The $12 million improvements in the stadium turned out to be a profitable blessing Saturday. Expanded concession stands enabled fans to be served quicker. The ability to produce food on site eased the stress on the distribution process.



November 11, 1997

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) -- The miracle catch wasn't such a miracle after all.

Nebraska's Shevin Wiggins admitted he was trying to keep the football in play by kicking it during the Cornhuskers' 45-38 win at Missouri last weekend.

Teammate Matt Davison made the 12-yard catch of the deflection as time expired Saturday to tie the game at 38 and force overtime.

“I looked down and saw the Missouri guy about the catch it and I just wanted to keep it alive,” Wiggins said. “I ended up kicking it as I was trying to pull it in.”

Frank Gaines, technical advisor to Big 12 football officials, said it's illegal for a receiver to intentionally strike a loose ball with the knee, lower leg or foot.

The penalty is 15 yards and loss of down. In that case, the Cornhuskers would have faced a fourth-down play from the 27-yard line -- if there was any time left.