Marcus James knows what he wants for his birthday. He wants Missouri to end the Nebraska jinx.
James, a senior wide receiver, gets his last chance at the Cornhuskers on Saturday, the same day he turns 22, and all he wants is a victory.
It wouldn’t be any old victory, either. This is Nebraska. The Tigers haven’t beaten the Cornhuskers since 1978 and haven’t done so in Columbia since 1973. Neither James nor any of his teammates were alive for either occasion.
“It’s way past due,” James said. “It’s like that book that you have under your bed and you just won’t check it in. It’s about time to check it in for us. It’s been way overdue.”
The streak has covered 25 years and 24 games. Some have been close; nine games have been decided by 10 points or fewer. Others have not; Nebraska won 13 of them by 21 or more. One thing has been constant. Nebraska has caused Missouri nothing but misery.
“It’s not pretty,” senior defensive back Terrence Curry said. “That’s our mindset, we want to be the ones to make a difference. We want to be the ones that change that.”
There’s always next year
Every year, it seems, is supposed to be the year the streak will end, but something always happens. A punt return, an eye-popping quarterback scramble, a walk-on quarterback’s day in the sun. Every year, Tigers fans are asked to wait until next year.
Last season, Missouri had one of its best chances at ending the streak. The Tigers led 13-7 in the first half before Nebraska took a 14-13 halftime lead. Missouri fans had a shot at ending their misery until the Cornhuskers’ DeJuan Groce returned a punt 89 yards for a touchdown.
Missouri defensive lineman Russ Bell remembers it well.
“We let it get away,” Bell said. “Close games, you hate to give them up. We were in that game in the fourth quarter and we didn’t finish it out the way we wanted to.”
Like some sort of repressed memories, many of the Tigers’ perceptions are a little off. They remember certain games as being closer than they were.
In 2000, the Tigers led then-No. 1 Nebraska in the first quarter in Lincoln, Neb., but lost 42-24. Missouri cut it to 28-21 at one point in the third quarter, but that was as close as it got. Curry’s memory is clouded with the hope and excitement he felt that day.
“I remember my sophomore year we went up there and played them,” Curry said. “From the beginning of the game, we were just dominating. Then, we lost by a touchdown. That was the last big chance we had to beat them. I still remember that game. It was crazy.”
That’s the way many Missouri-Nebraska games have gone, though. Glancing back through the archives can’t do justice to the electricity in the air for the period of time, long or short, that the game stayed close.
Even Nebraska’s 36-3 win in Columbia in 2001 gave Tigers fans hope until halftime. Missouri was within 13-3 at the half and looking confident. Then, Eric Crouch broke the run. Yeah, that one.
Crouch dropped back to pass from the Nebraska 5, and Nick Tarpoff appeared to wrap him up in the end zone for a safety. Somehow, Crouch got away. After making several Missouri players miss, he sprinted to the end zone for a touchdown that broke open the game and shattered the Tigers’ spirits.
In 1998, Missouri had Nebraska on the ropes. Leading 13-3 at half, Missouri had knocked out quarterback Bobby Newcombe and was poised for victory in Lincoln.
Enter Monte Christo. Christo, a walk-on, backup quarterback, led the Cornhuskers on two scoring drives, finishing both with touchdown runs, and Nebraska escaped 20-13.
If it seems too bad to be true, wait. It gets better.
Tens of thousands of Tigers fans were within 7 seconds of ripping down Memorial Stadium’s bright yellow goal posts and dragging them to Harpo’s. A comparable number of Cornhuskers fans were within inches of retreating to Lincoln in defeat. Columbia was within a blade of grass of pure pandemonium.
Instead, the posts stayed intact, the sea of red migrated downtown to eat, drink and be merry and, on Sunday, when the red-clad Nebraska fans shoved off, Columbia was no worse for the wear, except for the football fans.
The play has so many nicknames, but sheer mention of the year it happened, 1997, is likely to evoke a negative reaction of some kind in Columbia. That was the year of the kicked ball, the immaculate deflection, the flea kicker.
Hometown hero Corby Jones was leading Missouri’s best team in years when No. 1 Nebraska came to town. The Tigers and Cornhuskers traded scores all day, and it looked as though Missouri would land the last punch. Leading 38-31 with a minute left, the Tigers were about to pull off the biggest upset in school history. They forgot something. Things go wrong when Missouri plays Nebraska.
The Cornhuskers drove, but precious time ticked away. With 7 seconds left, Nebraska faced third-and-10 at the Missouri 12. Quarterback Scott Frost had an open man in the end zone. He hit Shevin Wiggins in the numbers, but Missouri defensive back Julian Jones knocked the ball loose and it headed for the ground.
As Wiggins fell, though, he kicked the ball, whether intentionally or unintentionally depends on where one’s loyalties lie. The ball popped back into the air, and Nebraska’s Matt Davison snagged it for a touchdown. The Cornhuskers tied it with an extra point and won it in overtime when two Missouri natives, Grant Wistrom and Mike Rucker, sacked Jones on fourth-and-7.
It’s the one Missouri-Nebraska moment that everyone remembers, but the response it evokes isn’t quite what one might expect. Nearly every Tigers player, when asked about the kicked ball, smiles.
Dedrick Harrington, a redshirt freshman outside safety who grew up watching the Tigers in Mexico, Mo., said it is almost comical how bad the Tigers’ luck has been against Nebraska.
“It is comical, but I don’t see how I can sit here and smile because I’m hurt at how we can year after year after year let this team come in and just whoop us every single year,” Harrington said. “It’s hard to swallow for me. I haven’t played against them yet, but I will take that into Saturday.”
Bell, who grew up in Jefferson City, remembers watching the game with friends who are Nebraska fans. He said his friends have never let him forget.
“Watching that game with the kicked ball, you go from an extreme high to …” Bell said. “I can’t find the right words that I can say here.”
Sharing the pain
It’s easy to tell which Missouri players and coaches have been in or around Columbia the longest. Just ask them about Nebraska.
Senior tight end J.D. McCoy has been a part of four Missouri-Nebraska games. To get a better background on the series, though, McCoy asked his roommate, defensive tackle Phil Pitts, who is from Jefferson City, to tell him about Missouri football history. Missouri’s 25-year drought against Nebraska amazed McCoy.
“Worse than anything is all the bad luck it seems Missouri got in a lot of those games,” McCoy said. “(Pitts) was telling us about some of the Nebraska games and some of the infamous plays. I’m just like, I wonder why Missouri can never get any of those breaks.”
Andy Hill, the Tigers’ wide receivers coach, knows more about the Nebraska skid than anyone else on the team or the coaching staff. Hill played at Missouri from 1980-84, playing on three teams that earned bowl berths. He has coached at Missouri for eight seasons, including two bowl trips. Hill has never beaten Nebraska. Hill downplays the streak like a true coach.
“There’s plenty of games where we played well and we’ve just gotta play well enough to win,” he said. “The streak is not part of our thought at all. My guess is that if we go out and play hard, good things will happen to us. Now, whether we’ll beat Nebraska or not is yet to be seen.”
James said the streak has hurt Hill more than anyone, though.
“Coach Hill, when he talks about it he just kind of snaps his fingers like, ‘I missed out. Four years,’” James said. “That’s a person that it’s going to mean a lot to because he’s put a lot into this university and this program.
“Being a player and not having an opportunity to get a win against them and being a coach for so long and not having a chance. I know it’s taken a toll on him. This is gonna be a big game for everybody. It’s a big deal.”
Is next year finally here?
This was supposed to be the year. Nebraska was coming off a 7-7 season; it was vulnerable. Missouri was on the upswing, with talented quarterback Brad Smith leading the way. A funny thing happened on the way to a showdown between two undefeated teams, though. Missouri lost to Kansas.
Suddenly, the whispers have changed from ones of hope back to ones of despair. This was supposed to be the year.
“Probably a lot of people have changed their minds about that, but the Missouri Tigers haven’t changed their mind about that,” senior wide receiver Darius Outlaw said.
Outlaw said the Tigers are tired of close calls and moral victories against the Cornhuskers.
“We’re not going into this game to compete,” Outlaw said. “We’re going into this game to play football. We’re going into this game to win a game for Missouri. The past couple of years, it’s been so close. It’s been so long. It would be so great to win this game. It will be.”
Although this will be his first game against Nebraska, Harrington shows more ire for the Cornhuskers than any other Tiger. He said he wants to beat Nebraska “more than anything.”
“They’ve been a pain,” Harrington said. “Heartbreakers. Something has gotta be done around here. I’m sure every year people have had talks about we’ve gotta do this and that. It’s all about getting over the intimidation of Nebraska, and their name and their shirt. Once you’re over that and you realize that they can be beaten on any day, too, just like anybody else, once you get through that, it’s time to beat them. We’ve gotta do that.”
As for James, none of his 21 years has seen a Missouri win against Nebraska. Maybe his 22nd will be better.
“That would probably be the third best thing that ever happened to me,” James said. “First thing is finding Christ. Second thing is my daughter being born. Third thing is people tearing down the goal posts after a big victory, after playing our hearts out and getting a big win that we really need right now.
“That would be the best birthday present I’ve ever gotten. It’s kind of funny that my birthday landed on that day. It’s gonna be a great day.”