Friday, August 9, 2019

Mizzou 50: 1997 Tigers ended bowl drought, played epic game with Nebraska

When I interviewed Missouri coach Barry Odom for a preview story ahead of the 2016 season, as the interview was wrapping up, I asked him what was his favorite memory as a player at Missouri. He said ending Missouri’s 14-year bowl drought in 1997 was his favorite memory, saying it meant a lot to do that for the program and that the team seemed to have a special bond. Odom was a sophomore linebacker that season. He tore his ACL in the spring but still recovered enough to play every game in 1997.

So yeah, memorable stuff for Odom. Memorable stuff for the whole program, both for finally making it back to a bowl, and for playing one of the more famous games in Missouri football history, the kicked-ball loss to Nebraska, as dramatic and chaotic of a game as you’ll see in this dramatic and chaotic sport.

But first, the buildup. Missouri opened with a home win over Eastern Michigan. Then came an usually early game with Kansas on Sept. 13. The Jayhawks won 15-7 in Lawrence. That set the up-and-down tone for the first half of the season.

Missouri won at Tulsa, then lost 31-10 to No. 7 Ohio State in Columbia. Missouri beat Iowa State at home, then lost at No. 22 Kansas State. The Tigers were now 3-3, and at least in contention for that elusive winning record and bowl game.

But as the leaves reached their peak color, Missouri found its stride. The Tigers hosted defending Big 12 champion Texas on Oct. 18 for Homecoming. Texas would have a pretty disappointing season that year, finishing 4-7, and Missouri contributed to that by beating the Horns 37-29.

Then came a wild, scintillating 51-50 double overtime win at No. 12 Oklahoma State, which was 6-0. The Cowboys had enormous future star power at coordinator, with Les Miles running the offense and Rob Ryan in charge of the defense. But Missouri pulled out the win, and moved within one win of securing a winning record.

They wasted no time with that, getting that win the next week at Colorado, 41-31. On Nov. 1, 1997, at over a mile above sea level, after 14 years, the winning record drought was over. The Tigers were 6-3 with two regular season games left.

Missouri then returned home for a huge game, hosting No. 1 Nebraska. The Huskers were unbeaten and on an incredible four-year run of dominance. The Tigers had not beaten their rival in 19 years. They had endured back-to-back games in Lincoln due to the schedule shakeup when the Big Eight became the Big 12. Now the Victory Bell game was back in Columbia, and the crowd was jacked. The great Brent Musburger was on the call, along with Dan Fouts and Jack Arute.. Missouri had never beaten a No. 1 ranked team, despite all their stunning wins over top-5 teams in the 70s.

It was, to put it lightly, an inspired performance from Missouri. The Tigers’ belief seemed to grow and grow as the game raged on. Missouri led 24-21 at the half. Missouri led 31-28 heading into the fourth quarter. With less than five minutes to go and the game tied at 31, Missouri quarterback Corby Jones faked a handoff, rolled out, and hit an open receiver for a touchdown to put Missouri on top. Memorial Stadium erupted with cheers 20 years in the making. “Missouri leads it!” Musburger yelled. Larry Smith appeared to be moved to tears on the sideline, overcome by his team and their relentless effort. Missouri 38, Nebraska 31.

Nebraska drove down the field. Both schools’ current coaches were on the field, in Odom and Nebraska quarterback Scott Frost. The ending was wild. Sprinklers went off at random in one end zone. Then, on third down with less than 10 seconds to go, Frost threw into the end zone to Shevin Wiggins. The throw was on the money and hit Wiggins in the chest, but he couldn’t corral it and it rolled down his leg. His leg flailed upwards as Wiggins fell backwards, and he kicked the ball into the air. It fluttered for an instant, then Husker receiver Matt Davidson caught it for a touchdown right before it hit the ground. Touchdown Nebraska.

A few things. Intentionally kicking the ball is a penalty, but in the moment the refs did not call that. Also, while the clock ran to 0:00 after the play, it likely wouldn’t have been the last play of the game. It was third down, and if you watch the replay, had Davidson not caught the ball it would’ve fallen incomplete with 2 or 3 seconds left, allowing one more play. And then adding to the chaos, Missouri fans rushed into that fateful north end zone, thinking they had won. The refs cleared the field and Nebraska kicked the tying extra point.

Overtime went about as expected, with Nebraska scoring a touchdown and Missouri coming up short, resulting in a 45-38 overtime Nebraska win. It remains one of the toughest losses Missouri has endured, with fans wondering what might have been, what that moment might have been like.

For Nebraska is was delirious joy. "Hallowed be his name," began a Sports Illustrated article about the catch, talking about Davidson. The Huskers went on to win their third national title in four years, winning the Big 12 title game and beating Peyton Manning and Tennessee in the Orange Bowl. They shared the national title with Michigan, the final year before the BCS era kicked in to try to end split national titles.

Now ranked No. 25, Missouri came back the next week and beat a bad Baylor team 42-24 to close the regular season at 7-4.

No. 19 Missouri played No. 18 Colorado State in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, just like they did in their previous bowl game 14 long years before. Colorado State won 35-24.

Missouri finished 7-5 and ranked No. 23. It was a tough end to the season, and the Nebraska loss had been brutal, but the Tigers were relevant and winning again. For the first time in a long time, the program had life.

1997: 22 years ago, 3rd place in the Big 12 North

Record: 7-5, 5-3 in Big 12

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