Thursday, July 18, 2019

Mizzou 50: 1975 Tigers laid a "good old sound country beating" on No. 2 Alabama

In one of the most stunning results in Missouri football history, the Tigers opened the 1975 season by waltzing into storied Legion Field in Birmingham and beat No. 2 Alabama before over 63,000 horrified Alabamans and a Monday night national TV audience on ABC.

Missouri was a decent team, but this was a stunning result. Alabama had not lost a game before December since 1970. Five years since the Crimson Tide’s last loss in September, October or November. Five years!

It was also Alabama’s first regular season loss since the Dec. 2, 1972, Iron Bowl loss to Auburn, the infamous “Punt Bama Punt” game, in which Auburn was trailing 16-3 in the fourth quarter. But Auburn’s Bill Newton blocked two Bama punts in the final minutes, and David Langner ran them both back for touchdowns. The improbable two blocked-punt return touchdowns in the final quarter gave Auburn a 17-16 win, probably the biggest Auburn Iron Bowl win until the Kick Six in 2013. The game was memorialized with “Punt Bama Punt” signs and stickers across the South, particularly on the Plains around Auburn.

That was the backdrop for the Tigers’ 1975 trip to Legion Field, where Alabama continued to play many of its big games for decades. Bear Bryant had a long and successful tenure at Bama, with peaks along the way. The run from 1971 to 1975 was definitely a peak, with the Tide losing only six games during those five seasons (four bowl losses against top-tier teams, the Punt Bama Punt game, and this game against Missouri) and finishing in the top five of the coaches poll all five seasons, including a national title in 1973. They also won the SEC title all five of those seasons. Heading into 1975, Alabama had gone 22-0 in its two previous regular seasons, with only narrow bowl losses to Notre Dame blemishing each season.

Missouri, a 20-point underdog, raced to a shocking 20-0 halftime lead. Junior Missouri quarterback Steve Pisarkiewicz would lead the Big Eight in passing yards that season, although on this night it was the Tiger ground game leading the way. Running back Tony Galbreath ran for 89 of his 120 yards in the first half. The Tigers held mighty Alabama to 118 yards of offense, including a ridiculous 31 rushing yards… on 34 attempts! The Tide finally got a touchdown early in the fourth quarter, but Missouri cruised to a 20-7 win.

After the game, Bear Bryant said “They kicked the hell out of us. What more can I say?” and “All in all, it was a good old sound country beating.” Indeed it was, and back home Columbia and Mizzou students celebrated wildly on the Quad and downtown.

Missouri was 1-0, and there’s a strong case this was the best single game Missouri has played, and an even stronger case the first half was the best single half the Tigers have played.

The aftermath drove the point home even further. Alabama won all 11 of its remaining games, winning every regular season game by 11 or more points. The Tide capped their season with a 13-6 win over Penn State in the Sugar Bowl for a No. 3 final ranking.

After that epic opening win, Missouri had a rugged schedule to contend with. The Tigers went from unranked to No. 5, and then won 30-20 at Illinois and 27-21 against Wisconsin in the home opener to move to 3-0.

But then the No. 5 Tigers had to travel to No. 12 Michigan on Oct. 4, and the Wolverines won big, 31-7. The crowd in the Big House that day (104,578) was the largest to see a Mizzou football game for decades, until a 2014 trip to Texas A&M saw a few hundred more in attendance.

The schedule didn’t lighten up much as conference play began, as Missouri hosted No. 14 Oklahoma State on Oct. 11. The Tigers bounced back with an emphatic 41-14 win.

Missouri then had to play a third straight game against a top-15 team, playing at No. 12 Colorado at scenic Folsom Field, located more than a mile above sea level in Boulder. The Buffs, who would finish third in the Big Eight behind Oklahoma and Nebraska, naturally, were a formidable opponent, especially in such a tough stretch of the schedule. Colorado won, 31-20, dropping Missouri to 4-2 and 1-1 in conference play.

Missouri crushed a bad Kansas State team 35-3 on Oct. 25, then returned home for the Victory Bell rivalry game with No. 3 Nebraska. It was the third straight time Nebraska was ranked in the top 5 when they played Missouri, but it would not be a third straight win for the Tigers in the rivalry. Nebraska rolled to a 30-7 win, coach Tom Osborne’s first against Missouri. Authoring the defensive shutdown of the Tigers was the Huskers’ third-year defensive coordinator, Monte Kiffin. Kiffin was a Nebraska alum and would go on to be viewed as one of the great defensive football coaches, coordinating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ dominant, Super Bowl-winning defense.

Kiffin has since embarked on a late-career trend of coaching defense wherever his son, Lane, is the head coach, with some more NFL stints mixed in. At 79, he is a defensive assistant for Lane’s Florida Atlantic team.

Missouri bounced back from the big home loss to the Huskers with a dominating 44-14 win at Iowa State to secure the Telephone Trophy.

The Tigers then played their third straight rivalry trophy game, hosting Oklahoma in the battle for the peace pipe on Nov. 15. After two straight blowout losses to Oklahoma and Barry Switzer, the Tigers fought to the end on this one. Playing in their first game decided by single digits since September, No. 18 Missouri nearly pulled the upset of No. 6 Oklahoma, who was coming off a stunning 23-3 home loss to Kansas. That loss broke a 28-game winning streak for Oklahoma, and was, staggeringly, Switzer’s first loss in his three seasons as coach of the Sooners. But against Missouri the Sooners prevailed 28-27, and went on to defeat Nebraska the next week to win the Big Eight title and Michigan in the Orange Bowl to win the national title, their second in a row.

Missouri finished the season with a fourth straight rivalry trophy game, against Kansas. Maybe it was Kansas’ late season surge, or maybe it was Missouri wearing down late after playing a rugged schedule, but the Jayhawks rolled to a 42-24 win. Kansas finished 7-5 and got to play in the Sun Bowl. Missouri stumbled to a 6-5 final record.

It was a tough finish after about as promising a start to a season as a team can have. Tiger fans may have wondered what might have been, but at least the 1975 team did not lack for big moments and memorable games.

1975: 44 years ago, tied for 5th in Big Eight

Record: 6-5, 3-4 in Big Eight

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