For the second year in a row, Missouri started the season with a entertaining win over Illinois in the Dome in St. Louis, prevailing 22-15. It was another memorable game for quarterback Brad Smith, who scored a late two-point conversion out of the old “swinging gate” formation, prompting longtime Tiger radio color commentator and Mizzou football personality John Kadlec to say, “Holy mackerel! The swinging gate!”
The season was off and running.
Missouri then rolled through cupcake city to finish nonconference play. The Tigers won 35-7 at Ball State, 37-0 over Eastern Illinois at home, and then squeaking by with a 41-40 overtime win over Middle Tennessee to move to 4-0.
The excitement cooled quickly with a 35-14 loss at Kansas. Coach Mark Mangino and quarterback Bill Whittemore would lead the Jayhawks back to a bowl game that year.
Missouri got a bye to regroup after that Border War beatdown, which came at a good time ahead of the Oct. 11 home game with Nebraska. It would be a memorable night at Memorial Stadium.
Missouri led 14-10 at the half, but then a Husker surge in the third quarter put the Big Red up 24-14 heading into the final quarter.
But then, 25 years of futility melted away during that fourth quarter. A Smith touchdown run from 39 yards out made it 24-21. On the next Tiger drive, Nebraska held them to a field goal attempt. But Missouri ran a fake, perhaps balancing the mojo from the Oklahoma go-ahead fake field goal pass the year before. Sonny Riccio hit Victor Sesay with the pass on the fake field goal to put the Tigers ahead. Missouri tacked on two more Smith touchdown runs for the 41-24 final margin. For the first time in 25 years, the Tigers had won against Nebraska, taking back the Victory Bell. The crowd rushed the field and tore down the goalposts.
Missouri was now 5-1 and ranked No. 24, but they had to travel to No. 1 Oklahoma next. Tough timing. The Sooners, who would play in the national title game that year, won 34-14.
Missouri returned home for an Oct. 25 Homecoming game with Texas Tech, again seeking that sixth win for bowl eligibility. The Tigers got what they needed, rolling to a 62-31 win on a rainy afternoon in Columbia. For the first time in five years, Missouri was going to a bowl.
The Tigers had a bye, but then lost 21-16 at Colorado, followed by a 45-22 win at Texas A&M.
Missouri was now 7-3 and heading to Manhattan for a Nov. 22 game at No. 19 Kansas State. It was in some ways Missouri’s biggest game in a while. With their win over Nebraska and the current situation in the Big 12 standings, this game was basically for the Big 12 North title. (Missouri would just need a season-ending win over last-place Iowa State the following week to clinch the title.) The Tigers were suddenly one step from playing for their first conference title in 34 years.
It was a brutally cold night in Manhattan, wind whipping off the plains, vendors running out of overpriced hot chocolate in the upper deck. At the end of the half, Mike Matheny bombed a 62-yard field goal attempt, with a strong wind at his back, and it hit the crossbar but missed. It was almost a kick for the ages. Missouri got within 14-7 at one point in the second quarter, but this was the Wildcats’ night, as they won 24-14. Darren Sproles set the K-State single-game rushing record. It was also their season in many ways, as they would go on to stun Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game.
Missouri did wrap up the season with a 45-7 home win over Iowa State.
The Tigers were 8-4 and headed to the Independence Bowl in Shreveport to play Arkansas. Many Tiger fans made the trip. Anytime you get a chance to spend New Year’s Eve in Shreveport, you have to do it. But the Houston Nutt-led Razorbacks had the upper hand, winning 27-14.
But overall, it was a successful season for the Tigers. Smith, a sophomore, became one of the few quarterbacks to throw for 2,000 yards and run for 1,000 yards in a season. The Tigers had made it back to a bowl, and they headed into 2004 with some optimism.
2003: 16 years ago, 3rd in Big 12 North
Record: 8-5, 4-4 in Big 12