Sunday, October 24, 2010

Tigers smash through Sooner roadblock

Missouri fans will likely remember Saturday, Oct. 23 for a long, long time. From the early morning, when ESPN’s College Gameday show broadcasted from the picturesque and passionate Francis Quad on campus, to the electric 36-27 win over BCS No. 1 Oklahoma that night before a national audience on ABC, this was a day, the day, for the Tigers.

A sellout crowd of 71,004 packed Memorial Stadium beneath the bright lights. The game began with a thunderbolt, an 86-yard kick return for a touchdown by Gahn McGaffie that set the tone.

Twice Missouri clawed for touchdown leads, twice Oklahoma tied it. Missouri benefited from two first-half Sooner turnovers inside the Tigers’ 20-yard line.

After Oklahoma grabbed a 21-20 lead late in the third quarter, Missouri fans could’ve been thinking, here we go again. The Tigers had lost seven straight to the Sooners and 19 of the last 20. But this Tiger team just kept playing, roaring with the crowd to a 36-21 lead and holding on for the epic win as thousands of jubilant Tiger fans stormed the field and carried the goalposts off to Harpo’s in downtown Columbia.

It was very possibly the biggest home win in Missouri football history, on Homecoming, over the No. 1 team, finally taking down the mighty Sooners who had so often in recent years stood in the way of the Tigers’ aspirations of rising as a program. It’s in the running for biggest Missouri win ever, though for now I’ll still give the nod to the 2007 “Armageddon at Arrowhead” win over Kansas.

Now Missouri has smashed through the familiar Sooner roadblock, and Tiger fans are dreaming like it’s 2007, that wild, beautiful year that saw Mizzou come within a win of playing for a national championship and finish No. 4 overall. It was a wacky year that saw the No. 1- and 2-ranked teams lose a combined 11 times. Three weekends that year No. 1 and 2 both lost.

Missouri’s win on Saturday was the third straight week a No. 1-ranked team lost, all in road games at that week’s College Gameday site. (To be fair, Oregon was No. 1 in the AP and Coaches’ polls last week. Oklahoma was No. 1 in the BCS, a combination of polls that determines who plays in the national championship game.)

Missouri is No. 6 in this week’s BCS rankings and the only undefeated team left in the Big 12. On Saturday they play at Nebraska (2:30 p.m. on ABC) in a game that will likely decide the Big 12 North Division winner. The Huskers (No. 14 BCS, 6-1 overall, 2-1 Big 12) are a formidable challenge.

Nebraska has lofty hopes for its final season in the Big 12. After a 5-0 start, the Huskers were dealt a bitter 20-13 loss to Texas in a game they desperately (perhaps too desperately) wanted to win. They recovered to beat a strong, previously undefeated Oklahoma State team on the road, 51-41. It was bizarre seeing Nebraska's stout defense give up 41, and equally bizarre to see the Huskers roll up 51 after looking so inept against Texas, when they couldn't get out of their own way or haul in passes when they were wide open. Freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez has been a sensational surprise for the Big Red, the Texas disappointment (not nearly a strong enough word for Husker fans) notwithstanding. Keeping him bottled up will be key if Missouri is to pull the upset. (The Tigers opened as seven-point underdogs.)

The stakes keep getting higher each week. A win would virtually seal up the North and put Missouri in position to remain in the national title picture to the end. It's also Missouri's last ever trip to Nebraska's storied "Sea of Red" as the Huskers are moving to the Big Ten next year. It should be a thrilling showdown between two fine teams with plenty on the line and, hopefully, another day for Tiger fans to remember in what is becoming a special season.

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