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Missouri's 1978 victory over Nebraska a 'special day'

Friday, October 3, 2008 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:56 p.m. CST, Thursday, January 15, 2009
Mark Jones (64) celebrates James Wilder’s winning touchdown in the fourth quarter of Missouri's 35-31 victory at Nebraska in 1978.

 

What else happened in '78

The last time Missouri beat Nebraska in Lincoln was 1978. Here's what else happened that year.

A gallon of regular gas cost $0.63

The Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt are signed, the first established peace between Israel and an Arab nation.

John Paul II is elected pope of the Catholic Church. He served as pope until his death in 2005.

The Spanish Constitution is approved, ending 39 years of Fascism in Spain. Spain has been a constitutional monarchy ever since.

"Grease" and "Animal House" hit theaters.

The Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive" and the Village People's "YMCA" are released.

Charon, a moon of former planet Pluto, is discovered.

The Susan B. Anthony dollar is placed in circulation.

 



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COLUMBIA — One by one, they fell silent.

The realists fell silent first, those Nebraska fans who sensed defeat drifting through Lincoln's November chill. With 4:42 left, MU tailback James Wilder diced the Cornhuskers' defense to push the Tigers into the lead, his black helmet piercing the end zone like a polished spear.

The optimists fell silent next, those who had faith that quarterback Tom Sorley and tailback Rick Berns, the engines who powered Nebraska's offensive freight train, would push the No. 2 Cornhuskers to a go-ahead touchdown. But they became derailed, then dormant.

Finally, the believers fell silent, those bundled in scarlet and cream on this stunning afternoon, their voices cracked and throats raw with wear as MU players turned their pads from Memorial Stadium after taming a giant. 

"It wasn't until Tom Sorley threw the fourth-down incompletion did ... they finally realize they were not going to win that game," said former MU quarterback Phil Bradley. "That's when it became eerie, to have 70,000-plus people go silent."

Thirty years later, the silence resonates among those who experienced MU's last victory in Lincoln. On Nov. 18, 1978, MU beat Nebraska, 35-31, for the Tigers' third consecutive triumph at Memorial Stadium. As the 2008 Tigers attempt to break a 14-game losing streak at Nebraska on Saturday night, memories of 1978 linger for those who lived through one of MU's greatest victories.

Before kickoff, Nebraska didn't lack confidence. A week earlier, sixth-year coach Tom Osborne beat arch-nemesis and No.1-ranked Oklahoma for the first time. After losing the season opener to Alabama, the Cornhuskers had won nine consecutive games. The Oklahoma victory was viewed as a golden moment in Osborne's attempt to mold an identity after replacing former coach and mentor Bob Devaney in 1973. With a victory against MU, Nebraska could clinch an outright Big Eight Conference championship for the first time since 1972.

In the meantime, MU was struggling to reach a bowl game. In coach Warren Powers' first year, the Tigers entered the regular-season finale in Lincoln at 6-4, losers of two of their previous three games. A loss could have prevented the Tigers from appearing in the postseason.

"It was a very important game for us," Powers said. "Nebraska had already played their big game against Oklahoma. We had to win that game to get a good bowl bid, and so our players wanted to continue the season and play in a good bowl game. They got themselves up for it. Going up to Lincoln, we knew it wasn't going to be an easy place to play, but Missouri had given Nebraska problems at times before."

Early in the first quarter, the Cornhuskers didn't have problems. Berns returned the opening kickoff 82 yards for a touchdown, jolting Memorial Stadium into delirium. With 18 seconds off the clock, Nebraska led 7-0.

"It probably worked in our advantage that it happened so quick," Bradley said. "The game hadn't started and they were already up 7-0. It wasn't that they had a 10-, 12-play drive and had taken six, seven minutes off the clock."

Soon after, the Tigers answered. With 9:45 left in the first quarter, Missouri converted its first touchdown after Wilder ran from 9 yards out, tying the score at 7.

The first half continued to be competitive. Nebraska entered halftime with a 17-14 lead. The outcome was still in doubt.

"They were so motivated and were a heck of a team then," said former Nebraska linebacker Lee Kunz, who led the Cornhuskers with 13 tackles that day.

"It was an intense battle. I tell you what, it's more of a rivalry than people realize."

Blow by blow, the urgency swelled. Early in the second half, Nebraska tried to distance itself, but MU answered. After trailing 24-14, Wilder capped two MU scoring drives with short touchdown runs — one from 1 yard and another from 4. Nebraska entered the fourth quarter with a 31-28 lead and clung to the advantage as the final five minutes ticked away. Nebraska fans sought a crucial defensive stand.

Then came the defining moment.

At Nebraska's 7-yard-line, Bradley handed off to Wilder, who burst through the line's left side and slammed Nebraska linebacker Bruce Dunning to the turf at the 2-yard-line before crashing into the end zone for a fourth touchdown. MU guard Mark Jones raised both fists and screamed. Most of the 75,850 fans in Memorial Stadium sat stunned, a shocking contrast compared to the pandemonium that broke out after the Oklahoma game.

MU led 35-31 and never surrendered the lead. Wilder finished with 181 rushing yards, and tight end Kellen Winslow caught six passes for 132 yards. Bradley totaled 187 yards passing, including a 14-yard touchdown to Winslow.

The Tigers were bowl-bound. After the game, players streamed from the locker room. They chanted, "Liberty! Liberty!" having accepted an invitation to the Liberty Bowl shortly after the game ended. MU would go on to beat Louisiana State in the December bowl game in Memphis, Tenn.

"It was unbelievable," Bradley said. For Wilder "to score four touchdowns against Nebraska and to score 35 points, I don't know how many teams in 1978 scored 35 points against Nebraska in a game, let alone in Lincoln.

"It's just nice that we can reflect back. It was a special day. It was a special game. And it turned out to be a special win in Missouri football history."

Now, 30 years later, those involved with that special day expect the 2008 Missouri team to create history of its own. The losing streak in Lincoln might be nearing an end, and those who lived the last victory are eager to see it fall.

"I don't have any doubts," Powers said. "I think they're going to go up there and play very well. I think they will win the football game."


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Comments

Charles Davis October 3, 2008 | 10:18 a.m.

Fun story....I was unaware of Mizzou at that time but it sure rekindles memories of how huge it was to beat Nebraska back then.

Davis

(Report Comment)
Jeff Johnson October 5, 2008 | 8:19 a.m.

It was my first year in Columbia. The season started with a 3-0 win over Joe Montana and defending national champion Notre Dame. There were ups and downs that year but winning in Lincoln remains one of my fondest sports memories during my time as an undergrad at Mizzou. Go Tigers!

(Report Comment)
DJ DAVIDSON October 5, 2008 | 7:32 p.m.

Check out the action in Lincoln and
the 2008 CHASE DAINEL HEISMAN T-SHIRT!!!
Go to ####www.ioffer.com/i/76098116
GO MIZZOU!!!

(Report Comment)

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