Missouri got a flash of hope early in the 2002 season. The Tigers renewed their off-and-on football rivalry with Illinois, playing the Illini in the Edward Jones Dome, then the home of the defending NFC champion St. Louis Rams.
Brad Smith emerged as an electrifying dual-threat quarterback in the game, leading Missouri to a 33-20 win to start the season. The Tigers then backed that up with a 41-6 win over Ball State at Faurot Field, in what is to date the last season on grass at the home of the Tigers.
It was a nice little 2-0 start, but Urban Meyer and Bowling Green had the answers the following week, beating Missouri 51-28 in Bowling Green. As a silver lining, Meyer and the Falcons beat Kansas, also by 23 points, the following week, completing the coveted Border War boxed set.
Missouri defeated Troy State 44-7 on Sept. 28 at home, heading into Big 12 play and October at 3-1.
The Tigers opened conference play by hosting No. 2 Oklahoma. Bob Stoops and the Sooners had another great season going, and hordes of Sooner fans showed up for the game, chiming in zealously with an “OU” at the end of Missouri’s “M-I-Z, Z-O-U!” chant.
Oklahoma led 23-7 early in the third quarter, but Missouri mounted a spirited comeback attempt. Smith, who would run for 213 yards and throw for 178 in the game, hit Justin Gage for a touchdown pass to make it 23-14. Then a field goal by Mike Matheny (the kicker, not the Cardinals player/manager) made it 23-17 heading into the final quarter. Smith scored on a 25-yard run with 10:22 to go that put the Tigers on top 24-23 after the extra point. The stadium was bedlam.
But Oklahoma got great field position after a Smith interception later in the quarter. With less than seven minutes to go, the Sooners lined up for a 31-yard field goal to try to retake the lead. But it was a fake. Holder Matt McCoy, a defensive back, rolled right with the ball and tossed a beautiful pass to a covered Chris Chester in the end zone for a touchdown. After a two-point conversion, Oklahoma led 31-24.
The Tigers kept battling. But their ensuing drive ended with another Smith interception, and then Missouri’s final-gasp drive got to the OU 35-yard line before Smith was sacked on fourth down with five seconds left. Missouri had gained more yards and first downs, but the Sooners had the 31-24 win.
Missouri had a chance to earn their first win over Nebraska in 24 years the following week with a trip to Lincoln. The Huskers were unranked and on their way to a 7-7 record, which would end their streak of 40 straight winning seasons. They were vulnerable. But Missouri wasn’t quite there. Nebraska won 24-13.
Then came an Oct. 19 trip to Lubbock to face Texas Tech. Mike Leach and the Red Raiders hung 52 on the Tigers in a 52-38 win. That made it three straight losses for the Tigers, who were now 3-4.
Missouri did get its first conference win the next week, beating Kansas 36-12 at home. The Jayhawks would go 0-8 in Big 12 games that year, although first-year coach Mark Mangino would eventually get some things going in Lawrence.
Then came a Nov. 2 trip to No. 22 Iowa State. Seneca Wallace and the Cyclones were on their way to another bowl, and they beat the Tigers 42-35. Missouri faced another ranked opponent the following week, hosting No. 18 Colorado, who would win the Big 12 North again. The Buffaloes won 42-35 in overtime, giving Missouri back-to-back losses by the same score.
The Tigers won 33-27 at Texas A&M in double overtime on Nov. 16, keeping alive their slim bowl chances heading into the season finale.
Missouri hosted No. 10 Kansas State in that game, the final game on grass at Faurot Field. It was also my first Mizzou game in attendance. It was all Wildcats on that autumn Saturday, with an ABC audience watching. K-State won 38-0.
Missouri finished the year 5-7, although they had been generally competitive, and Smith gave a lot of reason for hope heading into Gary Pinkel’s third season in 2003.
2002: 17 years ago, 5th in the Big 12 North
Record: 5-7, 2-6 in Big 12