Despite the tough finish to the 1973 season, Missouri fans could start to see some stability for their program under coach Al Onofrio heading into 1974. The team was coming off back-to-back bowl appearances in an era when making a bowl was a much more exclusive achievement than it is now.
Of course, as summer was fading into fall in America, there didn’t feel like much stability. The Watergate scandal had roiled all summer, culminating with Nixon’s resignation Aug. 9, as the Tigers were going through preseason camp. Missouri opened the season on Sept. 14, six days after President Gerald Ford’s controversial decision to unconditionally pardon Nixon. Missouri opened on the road playing at Ole Miss, the state that had voted the highest percentage for Nixon in his re-election, with 78.2 percent.
The opener was played in Jackson, where Ole Miss played several big “home” games for decades and every Egg Bowl from 1973 to 1990. The Tigers lost 10-0. But Missouri bounced back at home with a 28-21 win over Baylor on Sept. 21 and 9-0 over No. 7 Arizona State.
Nonconference schedules being significantly more entertaining back then (remember that when evaluating coaches’ win percentages across different eras; Missouri’s cupcake consumption has gone way up), Missouri played at Wisconsin to round out noncon play. The Badgers rolled 59-20 at Camp Randall Stadium.
Missouri kicked off Big Eight play on Oct. 12 at No. 5 Nebraska. Missouri again claimed the Victory Bell, 21-10, a huge win that moved the Tigers to 2-0 vs young Husker head coach Tom Osborne, with both wins coming while Nebraska was ranked in the top 5.
But, as so often seemed to happen for the Tiger teams of the 70s, the massive win was followed by a puzzling loss, 31-7 at Oklahoma State. The Cowboys were a decent team, finishing 7-5 and just a game behind Mizzou in the Big Eight standings, and goodness knows things can get wild on Lewis Field, a rare East-West field, but the wide margin had to be surprising seven days after the 11-point win at Nebraska.
Missouri bounced back with a gritty 30-24 home win over Colorado on Oct. 26, then crushed Kansas State 52-15 in Manhattan. Missouri’s first-year starting quarterback, Steve Pisarkiewicz, was a kid from St. Louis hailed as the Tiger’s best passer since the legendary “Pitchin’” Paul Christman was a two-time All-American and led the nation in touchdown passes in 1940. On this early November day in the Little Apple, Pisarkiewicz led the Tigers to 52 points against a period-appropriate awful K-State team, showing signs of the things he’d accomplish the next season.
Now 5-3 and 3-1 in conference play, Missouri was still alive for a Big Eight title when they headed to Norman for a Nov. 9 game with Oklahoma. But the Tigers’ conference title hopes and general dignity went to Norman to die, as Oklahoma crushed Missouri 37-0. Can you even imagine that much “Boomer Sooner?” The Tiger-Sooner Peace Pipe was getting comfortable in Norman, and the Sooners were steamrolling there way to the national title in 1974.
Missouri did compose themselves for a 10-7 home win against Iowa State, and then routed rival Kansas 27-3 at Faurot to close out the season. In his fourth try, Onofrio finally had a win against Kansas.
But it would be the only win the coach got against the Jayhawks in seven tries, which probably explains why he only got seven tries.
Despite Missouri’s 7-4 record and finishing tied for second in the Big Eight, the Tigers did not secure a bowl invitation after going bowling the two previous seasons.
1974: 45 years ago, tied for 2nd in the Big Eight
Record: 7-4, 5-2 in Big Eight