Monday, July 22, 2019

Mizzou 50: 1979 Tigers narrowly missed out on huge wins

The year 1979 was a good year to be a Mizzou season ticket holder, with three home games against top-10 teams. It was also in some ways a challenging year for Americans, with the economic challenges, the energy crisis, and often long lines to get gas. In July, President Jimmy Carter gave his “Crisis of Confidence” speech, often known as the “malaise speech” even though he never used that word. In November, hours after Missouri lost a gripping 23-20 game to No. 2 Nebraska, Iranians stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, launching the long and stressful Iran Hostage Crisis.

It’s a cliche to say sports are a distraction, but in some ways it’s true, and the 1979 Missouri Tigers did their darnedest to be a compelling team to follow. They were a lot of things, but they were not boring, with the narrative about the team shifting from month to month, or even week to week.

The team kicked Warren Powers’ second season as head coach, quarterback Phil Bradley’s junior year, with a 45-15 shellacking of San Diego State in Columbia. Missouri was No. 12, and although SDSU was decent that year the Tigers did not need a “Moe Miracle” to pull out the win. 1-0.

The No. 11 Tigers then traveled to Illinois for a gritty 14-6 win over their “rival.” The two schools would being their annual basketball game in St. Louis the following year, at the old St. Louis Arena.
Now ranked No. 9, Missouri played at Ole Miss on Sept. 22, although the game was played in Jackson, in keeping with the old SEC tradition of playing a lot of big games in nearby metro areas instead of on campus. Mizzou rolled to a 33-7 win.

That set up a massive game at Faurot Field, a rare top-5 vs. top-5 game in Columbia, as No. 5 Mizzou welcomed No. 4 Texas. Played before a crowd on 75,136, the second biggest crowd in Memorial Stadium’s history, a number not currently attainable with the present seating capacity, this was surely a frenzied weekend in Columbia. It was also, unfortunately, a disaster of a game for Missouri. Texas won 21-0.

Missouri had a bye, but the bad mojo continued two weeks later at Faurot. No. 15 Mizzou suffered a brutal 14-13 loss to unranked-but-decent Oklahoma State, dropping the Tigers to 3-2 after a promising start.

The Tigers bounced back with a 13-7 win at Colorado. But, lest Tiger fans start to develop any concrete opinions about what the team was, Missouri had a crushing 19-3 home loss to Kansas State. The Wildcats would finish last in the Big Eight that season, and it was Missouri’s first loss to K-State in years. But second-year coach Jack Dickey would get a few things going in Manhattan, by the program’s very modest pre-Bill Snyder standards.

Then came the big aforementioned home game in Columbia, the day before the hostage situation began in Tehran. No. 2 Nebraska came to town. Missouri had won four of six in the Victory Bell series, but the Huskers churned out a 23-20 win over the feisty Tigers.

After that so-close loss, Missouri won 18-9 at Iowa State the next week, Nov. 10. It was November in Ames, so one assumes it was cold.

That improved the Tigers to 5-4 ahead of a third blockbuster home game, hosting No. 7 Oklahoma. It was another spirited effort, another brutal loss, with the Sooners winning 24-22. Barry Switzer moved to 7-0 against Missouri, and Oklahoma would go on to win the Big Eight and finish No. 3 in the final polls.

Now 5-5 and probably disappointed after the 3-0 start, and with all the near-misses, Missouri took some measure of solace in a traditional way… hammering Kansas. Good to get at least one win over a school from the state of Kansas (eye roll emoji). Missouri won 55-7 in Lawrence. Mizzou’s biggest Border War win is by 48 points, four different times, two of which were in Warren Powers’ first two seasons as head coach at Mizzou.

The Tigers then headed off to a bowl game, playing No. 16 South Carolina in the Hall of Fame Classic at historic Legion Field in Birmingham, site of Missouri’s epic win over Alabama earlier that decade. The Gamecocks were an Independent team, in their 20-year run between the ACC and the SEC.

After South Carolina took an early lead, Missouri used a great second quarter to take a 17-6 lead into halftime. The Tigers held on from there for a 24-14 win, with a Gerry Ellis touchdown run capping the scoring for the Tigers. Phil Bradley had a passing and a rushing touchdown for the Tigers and was named the game’s MVP. South Carolina’s George Rogers, who would win the Heisman Trophy the next season and be the top pick in the 1981 NFL Draft, ran for 133 yards on 15 carries in the game.

It was a second straight winning season to start the Powers era, both capped by bowl wins, and the conference title “drought” was only 10 years.

1979: 40 years ago, fourth in the Big Eight

Record: 7-5, 3-4 in Big Eight

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