Sunday, July 14, 2019

Mizzou 50: 1971 was an epic year in the Big Eight, just not for Missouri

Folks, if you’re doing a countdown of the last 50 seasons of Mizzou football, there are plenty of great moments to write about, but there plenty of bad seasons we must soldier through. Here we must wade into one of the latter seasons. So here is the 1971 Missouri Tigers football recap you never wanted or needed, but now you have.

Missouri hired Arizona State alum and assistant coach Al Onofrio to replace Dan Devine. Onofrio would have some memorable moments at Mizzou, but his first season was pretty much a disaster.

In fairness to Onofrio and the 1971 Tigers, the Big Eight had a season for the ages and was brutally tough, with three teams in the conference (Nebraska, Oklahoma and Colorado) finishing 1-2-3 in the final AP poll.

Still, this was bad. Mizzou went 1-10, including 0-7 in Big Eight games, and was outscored 260 to 93 on the season.

Missouri opened the season by hosting No. 19 Stanford at home, losing 19-0. Then Missouri went west to take on Air Force in Colorado Springs. The scenery was surely better to look at than the game, with Air Force prevailing 7-6.

Missouri then returned home for its one win of the season, 24-12 over SMU on Sept. 25.
The Tigers went 0-for-October, starting with a 22-6 loss at Army, playing at historic Michie Stadium at West Point, on the banks of the Hudson. (Note to self: plan trip to watch a game at Michie Stadium in October.)

Missouri then got annihilated 36-0 at No. 1 Nebraska, the eventual national champs. The hits continued with a 21-point home loss to an Oklahoma State fan that would finish 4-6-1, a 27-7 loss at No. 11 Colorado, and a 28-12 home loss to a Kansas State team that also finished with a losing record.

November was more of the same, starting with Mizzou losing 20-3 at home to No. 2 Oklahoma, a team already gearing up for its “Game of the Century” with Nebraska. The Tigers then got hammered at Iowa State, as one does, and then capped this sad season with a somehow even more sad 7-2 loss at 3-7 Kansas. 7-2! Losing to your bitter rival when they aren’t good at the end of an awful season has to be bad, but losing by a 7-2 score at least adds an element of whimsy to the proceedings.

* * *

Five days after that debacle in Lawrence, in what I swear was still the same sport, No. 1 Nebraska and No. 2 Oklahoma played the most famous game in the history of the Big Eight Conference, widely called the “Game of the Century.” That week’s Sports Illustrated cover hyped the game as “Irresistable Oklahoma Meets Immovable Nebraska.”

It was an all-timer, with Nebraska rallying from a 17-14 halftime deficit to win 35-31, highlighted by Johnny Rodgers’ jolting punt return touchdown that prompted longtime Nebraska radio announcer Lyell Bremser to shout, “Holy Moly! Man, woman and child did that put ’em in the aisles! Johnny the Jet Rodgers just tore ’em loose from their shoes!” This was peak Big Eight football, in the conference’s best year and best rivalry.

Nebraska capped their 13-0 national championship season with a Jan. 1, 1972, Orange Bowl win over Alabama, 38-6. Decades later, when I traveled to Tuscaloosa to watch my hopelessly overmatched Missouri Tigers play at Alabama, my dad, who is from Nebraska, texted me ahead of the game, “I remember in 1972 when Nebraska beat them 38-6, hope MU does the same.” MU did not quite do the same, but I appreciated the sentiment.

The 1971 season was a tough one for the Tigers, but Onofrio would be able to generate some better moments in the coming seasons.

1971: 48 years ago

1-10, 0-7 in Big Eight

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