Thursday, September 27, 2007

Mizzou-Nebraska Redux: 1997 (Part Two)

Feel the rage build up inside you...embrace it...

November 9, 1997

The game will go down in history as one of Missouri's finest, despite the fact it was a loss.

The Tigers gave the No. 1-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers all they could handle yesterday in a nail-biting 45-38 shootout before a sellout crowd of 66,846, Missouri's largest since 1984.

“College football doesn't get any better than this,” Tigers coach Larry Smith said. “It was two warriors out there banging away at each other.”

All the breaks seemed to be going Missouri's way until the final seconds of regulation, which had the Tigers ahead 38-31. But with seven seconds to go, Husker quarterback Scott Frost passed to Shevin Wiggins, who had the ball knocked out of his hands. Missouri's Harold Piersey looked ready to intercept, but Wiggins accidentally kicked the ball into the air on his way down and teammate Matt Davison caught it at the last moment. An extra point sent the game into overtime.

Missouri had been 3-0 in overtime the last two seasons, including a 51-50 triple-overtime victory over Oklahoma State earlier this year, but could not keep Frost out of the end zone. Missouri's final attempt to score fell short.

Most of the crowd was standing at the finish. Alumni pointed to the game as a return to the power teams of old.

“This is the best game since the K-State-MU game in '69,” said Vern Garton of Nevada, Mo. “And I've seen 'em all since '64. This is like the old time games.”

“Forget whose team you were rooting for,” said MU alumnus Mard Waltham. “It's the best game I've ever seen, and I've seen all the home games from 1969 to 1982, and several since then.”


November 9, 1997

Cars were lined up and down Providence Road, some tucked into the tightest of crevices just to have a parking space.

The sidewalks were filled with people. Tailgate parties were in abundance. Tickets actually sold for more than face value.

Traffic officers, normally innocent bystanders, were having to work for their overtime. Fans driving to the game had to sit and wait.

Not many of the 66,846 in the stands will remember, but this is the way it used to be at Memorial Stadium on football Saturdays.

Out on the field, the Missouri Tigers were playing top-ranked Nebraska head-to-head, taking shots and dishing them out. There would be no second-half collapses, no giving up when things got bleak.

MU coach Larry Smith called it college football at its finest. Sportscasters on college football shows called it the game of the year.

Hardly anyone would remember that this used to happen a lot in Columbia. A freak play at the end of regulation set up Nebraska's 45-38 overtime win to keep the unbeaten record intact. It was so freaky that thousands of Missouri fans rushed onto the field to tear down the goal posts only to be chased away by officials who informed them that Missouri had not won the game.

Even the automatic irrigation system succumbed to the tension and starting dispensing water with two minutes left in the game.

But the way Missouri team handled the vaunted Big Red Machine through the first 59 minutes of the game may have taken away the Huskers' No. 1 ranking.

Those who were within earshot of Faurot Field yesterday did a little time traveling. Former Missouri football players who have made a habit of staying away while the program floundered through a decade and a half of losing showed up yesterday, sensing that the day of atonement was near. It was one play away.

It is the heart-breaking loss that will go down in the record books. It is the loss that made the players shed tears on the field. It is the loss that kept this from being the most glorious night in modern Missouri football history.

But it was also a game that is likely to go down as one of the best of an era -- win or lose. If the Missouri program has a rebirth, this is the game that will be remembered as the moment of arrival. This was the day when Missouri, a five-touchdown underdog, shook off its well-documented flaws and showed a national TV audience that it belonged in the picture.

“I've never cried after a football game,” said linebacker Al Sterling, “but I did this time. It hurts bad.

“We came out to play them and we played their way and went right at them. If this doesn't send a message then they need to get the Pony Express to deliver it. Missouri is back and we're for real.”

Believe it.

When was the last time a top-ranked team's fans stood on Faurot Field and cheered after a victory over Missouri while the band blared the school fight song?

When did Missouri players come out of a losing game against the No. 1 team in the nation and say, “We should have won.”?

“I'm just disgusted,” said fullback Ron Janes. “We came this far, we might as well go ahead and win the game.”

Those are signs of the transformation and reasons for the painful emotional outpouring in the locker room.

“There's a lot of grief in there,” head coach Larry Smith said.

It was earlier in the week when Smith asked his team if it really believed it could win against Nebraska. To a man, the team answered yes.

“To come that close to your goal and not get it makes it extra tough to swallow,” defensive tackle Steve Erickson said. “You know a lot of teams go out and just hope that they can hang with a team, but we believed we could win.”

That's how it used to be at Missouri.



November 9, 1997

The “Immaculate Reception” it wasn't, but Nebraska wide receiver Matt Davison's remarkable touchdown catch at the end of regulation drew countless comparisons to Franco Harris' fabled grab.

Davison caught a tipped pass in the end zone with no time remaining in regulation that enabled No. 1 Nebraska to tie yesterday's game against Missouri at 38 and send it into overtime.

Propelled by that play, the Huskers scored on their opening overtime possession and stopped Missouri on four straight plays to earn a 45-38 victory and keep their national title hopes alive.

“I've seen that play on ESPN a few times,” Davison said of Harris' catch of a tipped pass against the Oakland Raiders in the 1972 playoffs that pushed the Pittsburgh Steelers to a 13-7 victory. “That was an unbelievable play. This was minor.”

There was nothing minor about this catch.

Nebraska had the ball on its own 33-yard line with 1:02 to play trailing 38-31. The situation forced the Huskers, who rushed for 353 yards, to rely on the passing of quarterback Scott Frost, who had completed just 6 of 14 passes for 118 yards and two interceptions.

It left all the Huskers a little uneasy.

“We're down seven points with 50 seconds left, yes, there was a lot of doubt,” Frost said.

Three key receptions by Kenny Cheatum, two of which went for first downs, put Nebraska in position to erase that doubt. Cheatum's third reception gave the Huskers the ball on the Missouri 12 with 14 seconds to play.

Following two incompletions, Nebraska called a double slant pattern with Shevin Wiggins and Cheatum lined up on the right side. Frost hit Wiggins at the goal line, but MU safety Julian Jones knocked the ball loose as Wiggins tried to fall into the end zone.

The ball bounced off Wiggins' leg as he fell backward, narrowly out of the reach of MU safety Harold Piersey, and floated into the end zone.

“All I saw was the brown thing bouncing around,” Frost said.

Davison, who had lined up on the left side, was running a crossing pattern into the middle of the end zone. That put him in position to dive for the loose ball and narrowly get his hands beneath it for the catch.

Missouri players, meanwhile, insisted the ball had touched the ground.

“The ball hit the ground. It bounced. I know it bounced,” MU linebacker Al Sterling insisted. “You could see it hit the ground. It hit the grass.”

Davison realized the call could have gone either way, depending solely on the official's view of the play.

“I guess it was just a few inches off the ground,” said Davison, a freshman who has six career receptions. “I was just hoping they were going to call it a catch. It was close enough that I think the officials had to make a good call to see that I really caught it.

“There was no doubt in mind that I caught it. I just wanted to see the call before I got all excited about because it was real close to the ground.”

Nebraska coach Tom Osborne knew it was close to being ruled an incompletion, but he fully expected a break to finally go the Huskers' way.

The breaks had consistently gone against the Huskers, with a tipped pass being intercepted by Piersey and an Ahman Green fumble being recovered along the sideline by MU lineman Steve Erickson.

“We had some bad breaks and some good breaks,” Osborne said. “Luckily, our good breaks came at the end.”



November 9, 1997

The kings of overtime were knocked from their thrown.

Missouri, which entered yesterday's game with a 3-0 record in overtime games, had an extra period to forget yesterday in a 45-38 loss to Nebraska.

Perhaps still smarting from Nebraska's game-tying score at the end of regulation, Missouri allowed the Huskers to score in the three plays on their OT possession. Scott Frost leapt over MU tacklers at the goal line to score on a 12-yard run.

But Missouri had a chance to answer, and it had never not scored a touchdown in an overtime possession.

“I was shocked when we didn't score,” MU tailback Brock Olivo said.

On Missouri's first play, offensive coordinator Jerry Berndt went to his pet play-action pass play -- the one in which the fullback and tailback sneak out of the backfield to the left side. Missouri used the play in the second quarter and Olivo scored on a 34-yard reception. Last year in the first overtime against Baylor, Olivo scored a 25-yard touchdown on the play.

“It always works,” Olivo said. “Give them credit, they did a good job defending it.”

Olivo was covered, and Jones tried to force the ball to fullback Ron Janes, but the pass sailded out of bounds.

“I think I could have run for at least 6 or 7 on the first play,” Jones said. “I threw it to Ron Janes. It got all jumbled up, and I didn't know if he was going to keep running or stop.”

On third down, tight end Jake Stueve let a sure first-down reception slip through his hands, and Jones was sacked on fourth down.

SACK ATTACK:It was the biggest play the Nebraska defense had faced all day, and the Huskers turned to two native Missourians to make something happen.

Senior right end Grant Wistrom, a native of Webb City, and junior left end Mike Rucker, a St. Joseph native, combined to sack Missouri quarterback Corby Jones for a 6-yard loss on fourth and 7 in overtime, helping secure the Huskers' 45-38 victory.

“Jones was making some scramble plays all day,” said Rucker, who had three sacks and four total tackles for losses. “It was very important that we got back there and got him before he scrambled.”

Making the critical play in his home state against a school that had recruited him made the victory all the sweeter for Rucker.

“I was glad to make an impact in front of family and friends,” he said.

WAS IT OR WASN'T IT:It was the play of the year in college football, but some Missouri players weren't so sure it was legitimate.

On the final play of regulation, Nebraska tied the game when a pass bounced off the foot of intended receiver Shevin Wiggins and was snared by a diving Matt Davison. Although replays seemed to show Davison made the catch, MU linebacker Al Sterling was convinced the ball hit the ground.

“It wasn't a touchdown, I'm sorry to say,” Sterling said. “I'm standing 2 yards from the ball and our whole team was right there. We all called it. We're not just saying that because we don't want them to win. We're saying that because it's the truth.”

MU cornerback Wade Perkins agreed.

“I thought I saw it hit the ground and come up,” Perkins said.

EXTRA POINTS:MU senior defensive tackle Brian Cracraft broke his leg in the first half.... Before Missouri's game with Iowa State, a computer error led the Faurot Field sprinklers to run throughout the night, making for a soggy field. Yesterday the sprinklers in the south end zone started up while Missouri was on its final drive of regulation.