Monday, August 19, 2019

Mizzou 50: 2007 was one of Missouri's most memorable seasons

For Tiger fans, 2007 holds a special place. After building and building, Missouri unfurled its finest football season in nearly 50 years, all accompanied by the sense of wonder that accompanies breakthrough achievements.

It’s special for me, the autumn of my junior year at MU, and thinking back to those games, I am 20. My old friends were new friends then, and with each successive week our fascination grew.

It was in general a spectacular season of college football. It was the most college football college football season, the wacky and wild sport at its most wacky and wild. Massive upsets and chaos help make the sport great, and 2007 had them in spades.

Using the AP Poll, 13 teams during the regular season unranked teams beat teams in the top 5. The No. 1- and 2-ranked teams had not lost in the same week of the season since 1996, and in 2007 it happened three times, including in both of the final weeks of the regular season.

The No. 2-ranked team lost SEVEN TIMES in the final nine weeks of the regular season, which is staggering.

The chaos began right away with then-FCS Appalachian State beating No. 5 Michigan in the Big House.

That same weekend, Missouri kicked off its season playing Illinois in the Dome in St. Louis. For four years, that neutral site game was a fun way to kick off the season. The 2007 edition was the most wild. Missouri was a good team, with some prognosticators picking them to win the Big 12 North. Led by quarterback Juice Williams, Illinois would go on to win nine games and play in the Rose Bowl.

The game was thrilling and agonizing. With Missouri leading 7-6, Illinois drove down near the Tiger goal line. But then Sean Weatherspoon forced a fumble into the end zone, and Pig Brown scooped it up and ran the length of the field for a touchdown. But then, in one of the great “Umm, Gary?” moments of all time, Tiger coach Gary Pinkel called for a two-point conversion try, up 13-6 in the second quarter, after his defense had scored. The Tiger offense ran out on the field but failed to convert the try.

But Missouri was on a roll, taking a 23-6 lead at the half. Also, Juice Williams was knocked out of the game. The second half began with more from the team’s best players. Chase Daniel hit Jeremy Maclin for a touchdown pass. And then when Maclin returned a punt 66 yards for a touchdown, the Tigers led 37-13 with just over 21 minutes left in the game.

Missouri was somewhat haunted in recent history by recent blown losses and near-misses, so there was considerable anxiety when the Illini made a charge with backup quarterback Eddie McGee. With touchdown after touchdown by Illinois, the orange and blue portion of the split crowd got louder and louder. The last one closed the game to 37-34, and a Missouri field goal by Jeff Wolfert made it 40-34 midway through the fourth quarter.

Missouri safety William Moore had a big pick in the fourth quarter, but the Illini had one more shot. On its final drive, Illinois pushed into Missouri territory, down 6. Here we go again. The chickens of that bizarre two-point conversion try were coming home to roost. But then, with Illinois at the Missouri 22 with 58 seconds left, Pig Brown saved the Tigers, picking off a pass at the 1. Daniel had to surge ahead instead of a victory formation kneel down due to being backed up against the goal line, and the Tigers had held on for a 40-34 win. Whew.

This Missouri team was different.

The Tigers then kept building, winning 38-25 at Ole Miss, coached by Ed Orgeron. Then came home wins over Western Michigan and Illinois State, moving the Tigers to 4-0.

Missouri had a bye, allowing for the anticipation to build ahead of an Oct. 6 matchup with Nebraska. Missouri was ranked 17, Nebraska was ranked 25. A midweek pep rally on campus drew a huge crowd. It was a rare 8:15 p.m. kickoff at Faurot, and after two weeks and a full day of tailgating, the energy had reached hysteria levels by the time the game kicked off under the lights. This was the 2007 team’s grand arrival on the national stage, the packed crowd wearing all gold for the “Gold Rush” game. Winner would be viewed as the favorite to win the Big 12 North.

Missouri rolled to a 41-6 win. It was no drama for Tiger fans, all celebration. Late in the game, up 34-6, Missouri ran a fake field goal for another touchdown.

In hindsight, this was maybe the worst Nebraska team in 50 years, and Bill Callahan would get fired, and Kansas would hang 76 on what would prove to be a helpless Husker defense. But it was still a big night for Missouri, and launched expectations higher and higher.

Missouri moved to No. 11, and the very next week had to play at No. 6 Oklahoma. The Sooners were coming off a gritty win over Texas. College GameDay was in Norman. Missouri gave it a strong effort, but the Sooners were playing great football and won 41-31, dealing Missouri their first loss of the season.

That set up another crossroads for Missouri, just like they faced in the fourth quarter when Illinois was roaring back. The 2006 team had started 6-0 then fallen to an 8-5 record. The 2007 Tigers were now 5-1 with No. 22 Texas Tech coming to town. How would they respond to their first loss? Would there be a hangover effect after two big and emotional games?

It was Oct. 20, Homecoming, a perfect setting for college football. In that October afternoon sun, Missouri providing a resounding answer to the questions, pounding the good Texas Tech team 41-10.
Missouri moved to No. 13. As October rolled on, I was crafting several-step scenarios to get the Tigers back up to the BCS top 2, ridiculously thinking about national title chances.

The Tigers rolled on, beating Iowa State 42-28 at Faurot on Oct. 27. Next, No. 9 Missouri traveled to Colorado on Nov. 3. The Buffaloes grabbed an early lead, but Missouri showed their mettle again, finding their top gear and racing to a 55-10 win in the mountains. More and more Tiger fans were on board, casting off their fears and doubts and past wounds in favor of pure jubilation and excitement.

Nov. 10 was Senior Day, and No. 7 Missouri held off a spirited effort from Texas A&M to win 40-26.

Missouri had bounced back from the Sooner loss in a big way, and on Nov. 17, they were 9-1, No. 6 and playing at Kansas State. Ron Prince’s Wildcats were feisty early, and Jordy Nelson was a great player, but the Tigers were too good, winning 49-32 and setting up a game for the ages. K-State fans chanted “Beat KU” to the Tigers as the game wound down.

On Nov. 24, No. 3 Missouri played No. 2 Kansas at Arrowhead Stadium. It was the greatest Border War, taking place in the epicenter of the Border War, Kansas City. The winner would be the new No.1-ranked team after Arkansas upset No. 1 LSU the day before, on Black Friday.

Missouri was having a special season, its best in decades, and Kansas was also having a special season, its best ever. Led by quarterback Todd Reesing, the Jayhawks were 11-0, surviving some close games in late October and then hitting full flight in November, putting up big scoring numbers and cruising to wins.

College Gameday was in town, and fans of the different teams were assigned to different parking lots to keep the potential brawls to a minimum. On a cold night at Arrowhead, Missouri slowly inched ahead. Daniel to Martin Rucker touchdown pass for 7-0. Daniel to Danario Alexander touchdown pass for 14-0 at the half. Then a Jimmy Jackson touchdown run for 21-0 early in the third quarter. The Jayhawks got on the board with a touchdown run, but then another Daniel touchdown pass made it 28-7 heading to the final quarter. 
But Mark Mangino’s Jayhawks kept battling back. Reesing touchdown run, Mizzou field goal. Reesing touchdown pass, Mizzou field goal. Another Reesing touchdown pass made it 34-28 Missouri with just over two minutes left.

The Tigers bled some clock, but the Jayhawks had one last gasp, deep in their own territory with 17 seconds left. It was a long-shot, but somehow the game’s outcome was not certain yet. The Tiger fans in that end of the stadium were roaring. Missouri needed one more play. They got it.

Reesing was pressured and rolled left into the end zone. A horde of Tiger defenders corralled him and drove him into the Arrowhead turf for a sack and a safety.

“Safety! Bingo! Ballgame!” Missouri radio announcer Mike Kelly yelled in his memorable call. The cameras caught Reesing walking off the field, picking turf out of his helmet. Photos of that moment are on the walls at bars in Columbia. It was one of the most euphoric moments for Tiger fans ever.

Now their was the business of finishing the game. Missouri led 36-28 with 12 seconds left. Kansas perhaps didn’t know they could attempt an onside kick on a safety kick, which would have given them one last chance to recover the ball and have one more Hail Mary try. But they just kicked it away, and Missouri took a knee, and the Tigers had their biggest win in decades, winning the Big 12 North.

For the first time in 47 years, Missouri was the No. 1 team in the country. They were playing a game for their first conference title in 38 years. And even more, somehow, a win meant Missouri would play in the national title game.

Their opponent was No. 9 Oklahoma, champions of the South. The Big 12 title game was in San Antonio. Memories from that day are still vivid. Driving all night to get there. College GameDay at the Alamo. Eating on the Riverwalk with friends. Sitting in the end zone at the Alamodome. Missouri making the crowd delirious when they scored a touchdown and then got a two-point conversion on a trick play to make it 14-14 at the half.

But the Sooners were relentless, unyielding, and took it up a notch in the second half. Oklahoma’s offense got the ground game going, churning out drives, while the Sooner defense clamped down on Missouri’s offense. When the clock hit zeroes, the Sooners had won, 38-17.

The Orange Bowl took Kanas, likely due to some great negotiating by the Jayhawks. But Missouri got to go to the Cotton Bowl. The Cotton was not in the BCS group of bowls, and so Tiger fans joined the chorus of fanbases angry at the BCS. Also, the Orange Bowl had longtime ties for the old Big Eight schools. But the Cotton was a great bowl, and it was in Texas, a huge Missouri recruiting base at the time. And in the modern format, the Orange and Cotton are on equal footing in the College Football Playoff format.

Missouri crushed No. 25 Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl. The Tigers had Daniel, who finished fourth in the Heisman voting, and the Razorbacks had the breathtaking Darren McFadden, who finished second.

The Hogs had an interim coach, and Missouri was dialed in. The Tigers rolled to a 38-7 win, capping their memorable season with a big win. Running back Tony Temple was the offensive MVP in his final game as a Tiger, running for four touchdowns, and safety William Moore was the defensive MVP scoring a touchdown on a pick-6. Legendary broadcaster Pat Summerall handled the play-by-play on FOX.

Missouri finished 12-2, No. 4 in the AP Poll and No. 5 in the Coaches Poll. It was the first time Missouri had won 9 or more games since 1969, and their first time with double-digit wins since 1960. Rucker and Maclin were first-team All-Americans, and Daniel and Moore were second team. Center Adam Spieker, a senior, was third-team All-American.

Tim Tebow won the Heisman that year, and LSU beat Ohio State in the national title game, capping a spectacular year of college football.

That autumn was one of the most special in Columbia. The players, the moments, the games. It was a season Tiger fans had been waiting for a long time, and one they’ll look back on fondly for years to come. Those are memories to savor, Saturdays with friends and the Tigers.

2007: 12 years ago, 1st in Big 12 North, lost conference title game

Record: 12-2, 7-1 in Big 12

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