Friday, September 28, 2007

Mizzou-Nebraska Redux: 1997 (Part Three)

November 9, 1997

What can you say when the greatest victory in your school's history is ripped from your grasp by a fluke play, a lucky bounce, an immaculate reception?

What can you say when you're on the wrong end of a miracle?

“One stinkin' play,” is what Missouri coach Larry Smith said.

No. 1 Nebraska escaped with a 45-38 overtime victory over Missouri yesterday. It might have been the greatest game ever played on Faurot Field, but the Tigers (6-4 overall, 4-3 Big 12) will remember the sourness of the final play of regulation.

“We wanted to shock the world tonight,” MU guard Craig Heimburger said. “But the end of that game shocked us. The thing is we should have won that game. That's all there is to it.”

With the final seconds ticking away, the Cornhuskers (9-0, 6-0) had the ball on Missouri's 12-yard line trailing 38-31. Scott Frost threw a pass to Shevin Wiggins on the goal line, but MU safety Julian Jones knocked the ball free. As Wiggins fell to his back, he kicked the ball out of Harold Piersey's fingertips and it fluttered into the end zone.

Cutting in from the left side of the end zone, Nebraska's Matt Davison dove headlong and snatched the ball just before it hit the turf.

“It was floating like a punt, kind of end over end,” Davison, a freshman, said in reference to the sixth catch of his college career. “It seemed like forever for the ball to get there.”

In the confusion that ensued, MU fans in the north end zone stormed the field, some of them actually climbing on the goal posts to celebrate what they thought was a Missouri victory. They were shooed off the field in time for Kris Brown to send the game into overtime with his extra point.

Although the Tigers were 3-0 in overtime games in the past two seasons, they couldn't recover from the shocking finish to regulation. Frost scored on a 12-yard run to begin the overtime, and Missouri managed only 3 yards on its drive.

On first down, MU quarterback Corby Jones passed up a chance to scramble and threw an incomplete pass. He gained 3 yards on an option keeper on second down. Tight end Jake Stueve let a sure first-down reception slip through his hands on third down. On MU's last chance, Jones was sacked by Grant Wistrom and Mike Rucker -- two native Missourians -- to end the game.

The Missouri portion of the sellout crowd of 66,846 was stunned. The sizable Nebraska portion was euphoric, storming the field to rejoice with the team.

“I'm very proud of our players,” Nebraska coach Tom Osborne said. “They showed a lot of poise. It was kind of one of those days where somebody was going to win at the end. We're very fortunate to have won it.”

For the Tigers, a glorious feeling was replaced with emptiness.

“We fought our asses off and came up short,” MU fullback Ron Janes said. “It hurts so bad. We could have had it, should have had it.”

There is no denying that Missouri, which entered the game as a 29-point underdog, made a statement. The Tigers matched every Nebraska score with one of their own, and as the afternoon turned to evening, they had their fans believing that the impossible was possible.

Facing the No. 3 defense in the nation, Jones completed 12 of 20 passes for 233 yards and three touchdowns. He rushed 21 times for 60 yards -- stats that would have been much higher if not for five sacks -- and scored a touchdown.

For Nebraska, Ahman Green carried 30 times for 189 yards and a touchdown. Frost rushed 23 times for 141 yards and four touchdowns and completed 11 of 24 passes for 175 yards and two interceptions.

No more than seven points separated the teams at any point.

Executing its play-action passing game to perfection, MU took a 24-21 lead into halftime. The Tigers scored first on an efficient 78-yard drive, with Brock Olivo diving into the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown. Later Jones hit Torey Coleman with an 18-yard TD pass and connected on a 34-yard scoring strike to Olivo. Scott Knickman kicked a 39-yard field goal.

Meanwhile, Nebraska was chewing up the Missouri defense with its powerful running game, which produced 353 rushing yards. But two Frost mistakes late in the first half hurt the Huskers. Frost threw an interception to MU cornerback Shad Criss and fumbled a shotgun snap in the waning seconds that cost Nebraska a field goal attempt.

Nebraska snuck back into the lead at 28-24 with 3:00 left in the third period, but Missouri responded with Devin West's 62-yard kickoff return. Jones took advantage of the field position and scored on a 6-yard run.

The Huskers tied the game on a Brown field goal with 10:50 left in the game. Missouri answered again after Piersey intercepted a Frost pass and returned it to the Nebraska 30. Jones hit H-back Eddie Brooks in the right side of the end zone with a 15-yard touchdown pass with 4:38 to go.

“We had them, and we just didn't give them the knockout blow,” Jones said.

Missouri could have put the game away with just over a minute left in regulation, but on a third-and-3 play, Jones was stopped on the option. Jason Smith's punt put the Huskers 67 yards from the end zone with only 1:02 left, but that was just enough time for a miracle.

“It's heart-breaking man,” said Olivo, who had 11 carries for 42 yards and two receptions for 45 yards. “To have everything go so well and then a fluke thing like that happens. There's nothing you can do about it.”

Osborne was grateful as he greeted Smith at midfield afterward.

“He said, `We got lucky,' “ Smith said. “He's right, they did.”



November 9, 1997

Jubilation turned to disbelief in a heartbeat yesterday at Faurot Field, when what appeared to be a Missouri win over No. 1-ranked Nebraska turned into a fluke play that led to victory for the Cornhuskers.

The mob that charged the field believing the Tigers had held on to win were driven back to their seats only to watch Nebraska prevail in overtime 45-38. The Tigers were robbed of the victory, and the goal-post snatchers were robbed of their prey.

“I really thought we could win this game,” said Suzie Stallings of Marshall. “We almost did, then the officials gave it away. I swear that ball hit the ground.”

Some fans compared the implausible play to Colorado's infamous “fifth-down” play in 1990, when victory was snatched from the Tigers by a controversial touchdown call on an extra down. Nebraska's unbelievable catch even occurred at the same spot on the field.

One Nebraska fan attributed the miraculous catch to divine intervention on the part of the Cornhusker's revered former coach.

“Bob Devaney was looking over us on that reception,” said Kyle Moyer, who sported a hat with a flashing neon N.

Although the Tigers were technically defeated, the fans were not.

“This loss is not hard to take,” said state Rep. Chuck Graham, D-Ashland. “The team fought their hearts out against a team that was bigger, faster and stronger. I'm proud of our guys.”

Marie Liggett of Columbia saw the game as a moral victory, if not a win.

“See how subdued all the Nebraska fans are around here?” she asked. “They know they've been in a cat fight. We gained some respect with this game.”

Tom VanGoethem, had lofty visions of the future up until the last second. “I saw oranges, and then they went away,” he said. “I think you'll be seeing a lot more people in the stands next year, though. This was really a shot in the arm.”

That winning feeling might be gripping a new generation at MU. Freshman David Salkover said the game ensures the team a bowl bid.

“It's an awesome way to start my freshman year,” Salkover said. “This is beautiful -- this is the way it should always be.”

As homemade signs around the field said, “You gotta believe.”

After the game, many Cornhuskers and Tigers swarmed downtown to relive the afternoon. Shakespeare's was thick with red, gold, beer and pizza.

“We were very scared,” said Kody Hagedorn of Omaha, Neb. “I was praying to the football god, and he answered my prayers. But my hat's off to the Tigers. They played an awesome game.”

Hagedorn said he had been to more than 30 Nebraska games and has never seen them lose. “If you're born and raised in Nebraska, that's the only thing we've got to get excited about. It's tradition,” he said.

Matt Strayhorn of St. Louis called the game the “highest of the highs and lowest of the lows.”

“I thought they were going to win,” he said of Missouri. “They ran for the goal posts, and it was all for nothing. But for us to be even going into overtime and even have a chance to win was amazing.”

Lee Tuveson of St. Louis agreed. “Who would have ever expected we would have done this well against the No. 1 team?” he said. “The atmosphere was tremendous. I can't remember a more exciting game.”

It was worth the several-hour drive, said Krista Keith of Lincoln, who drove with friends from “Big Red country.”

“We wanted to see a good game, but we didn't want it that good,” she said. “If we'd lost, we'd have been in mourning.”



November 9, 1997

The Nebraska defense is used to giving up 38 points, but it usually does so over the course of a month, not a day.

In Missouri's 45-38 overtime loss to the Cornhuskers yesterday, the Tigers did what many observers thought was impossible -- they marched up and down the field against the No. 3 defense in the country.

Guided by the nifty passing and running of Corby Jones, who completed 12 of 20 passes for 233 yards and three touchdowns and scrambled out of sure sacks numerous times, Missouri pushed Nebraska to the brink of an upset.

“What we did out there was the same thing we had been doing all year,” MU coach Larry Smith said. “Our passing game, we didn't change anything there. It just came down to Corby Jones making plays.”

In the previous three weeks, the Nebraska defense had given up seven points, and that meager total was provided by a garbage-time touchdown by Oklahoma against the Cornhusker reserves.

Missouri matched that total on its first drive -- the kind of 12-play, 78-yard affair that isn't supposed to be possible against the Cornhuskers. It was omen of things to come.

“Playing against a team like this with a defense like this, we were going into it saying: `Jeez, we know we can move the ball, but we've got to prove it to ourselves right off,' “ Jones said. “That's what we did.”

The Tigers, who pounded Colorado into submission with a bruising running game last week, knew it was unwise to go nose to nose with Nebraska. So in the first half, Jones made big plays through the air with touchdown passes to Torey Coleman and Brock Olivo. Jones took advantage of the aggressive Nebraska pass rush by scrambling out of jams.

The virtues of Missouri's balanced offense were apparent. Last year the one-dimensional Tigers were held to 52 yards on the ground and got smoked by the Huskers 51-7. Not so yesterday.

“We never did stop them very well,” NU coach Tom Osborne said. “They have a great offense that we knew would be tough to stop. They can be very explosive.”

In the second half, the Tigers began to wear down the Cornhuskers and turned more to the running game. MU finished with 153 yards on the ground, led by Jones with 60 and Olivo with 42.

Unfortunately for Missouri, Nebraska's defense stiffened when it counted. The Cornhuskers stopped Jones on option play on third-and-3 with less than two minutes remaining in the game. If MU converted, it could have run out the clock.

And on a fourth-and-7 in overtime, Grant Wistrom and Mike Rucker sandwiched Jones for a sack to end the game.

“We did all that we could, and they did all they could,” Olivo said. “They just happened to score last.”


November 9, 1997

Joel Makovicka.

It's a name you won't hear much about in the reviews of Nebraska's 45-38 overtime squeaker over Missouri.

For the past three weeks Makovicka, a powerful fullback, has been devastating to Nebraska's opponents, ripping through the defenses that were already preoccupied with stopping quarterback Scott Frost and running back Ahman Green. Yesterday he was invisible, gaining just 24 yards.

Credit the Missouri defense.

“Coach Ricky Hunley wanted us to key on the guard and the fullback because he was the guy who can get away and break one at any time,” said linebacker Al Sterling.

“We did that pretty well.”

By taking Makovicka out of the offense, Missouri forced Nebraska to alter its offensive plan, causing some adjustments for Frost.

The Tigers' defense didn't exactly halt the nation's top-ranked offense. Nebraska cleared its total offense average by a few yards, racking up 528 yards -- 353 yards rushing, but the Tigers did enough to make the Huskers earn it the hard way. That was almost good enough for an upset.

Frost ran for four touchdowns and Green gained 189 yards, but even with those totals, it took a passing rampage in the final minute for Nebraska to avert an upset.

Compared to years past when Nebraska took the field against the Tigers and dictated everything, this was a change.

“We told them at halftime, we had them right where we wanted them,” head coach Larry Smith said.

Where they had them was behind and pressing. Nebraska strayed from its grind-it-out mode and started making mistakes.

The Tigers' defense forced three turnovers and turned away the Huskers three times when they moved into the red zone.

Late in the first half, Nebraska moved into Missouri territory hoping to expand on a 21-17 lead. The Huskers tore up big chunks on the ground, but mysteriously opted to pass on first down at the 36.

Frost's overthrown pass was picked off by Shad Criss and returned to Nebraska territory. On the next play, Missouri scored to take the lead.

After an 11-yard punt set up the Huskers at the MU 40 in the final minute of the half, the MU defense forced Frost into some time-consuming plays that failed to produce even a field goal attempt.

“They were supposed to come in and grind us up,” said Sterling, “but we can play with them and we showed you're not going to come in and run over Missouri.”

The big plays by the MU defense proved to be critical for the Tigers' surge into the lead.

An interception by Harold Piersey, his fourth in three games, set up Missouri's touchdown to go ahead 38-31 with four minutes left in the game. A fumble recovery by Steve Erickson, who replaced an injured Brian Cracraft, also stopped a Nebraska drive early in the second half.

The injuries and fatigue factor also played a role as Missouri coaches made defensive adjustments that moved nose tackle Donnell Jones to an outside spot. He recorded a career-high 13 tackles.

But when it came time to force the biggest stop of all, the Tigers defense couldn't come up with the sack or turnover as Frost drove the team 67 yards -- all on passes -- to tie the score on the last play of regulation.

“We played a little bit off during the drive,” said cornerback Shad Criss. “You win some and you lose some.”