Columbia was ready to celebrate almost 10 years ago. Missouri was poised to knock off Nebraska, the nation’s No. 1 team.
ABC sportscaster Brent Musburger was in rhapsody when the Tigers took the lead toward the end of the third quarter.
Missouri 41, Nebraska 24It hasn’t been all heartbreak when MU and Nebraska face off in Columbia. In 2005, fans tore down both goalposts after Brad Smith had 480 yards of total offense for the Tigers in the win. The Tigers beat the Cornhuskers by an identical score in 2003.
“This is the stuff of fairy tales. You’re a 29-point underdog and you’re back ahead again and you’re trading shots with the No. 1 team in the country,” he said.
But soon that fairy tale turned into an unforgettable nightmare.
* * *
Faurot Field looked different that Saturday evening — Nov. 8, 1997.
The Tigers wore black jerseys and yellow, not black, pants. Quarterback Corby Jones lined up primarily under center, not in shotgun like current quarterback Chase Daniel. Cleats tore up tufts of grass, not rubber pieces of FieldTurf.
The game was memorable even before the wacky final seconds of regulation.
Jones and the Tigers were confusing a defense that had given up only seven points in its past three games. Late in the fourth quarter, with the game tied at 31, the crowd went crazy when MU’s Harold Piersey intercepted Nebraska quarterback Scott Frost.
The crowd went crazier on the ensuing drive when Jones completed a touchdown pass. The Tigers led 38-31. Four minutes and 38 seconds were left before fans could flood the field.
Musburger sensed something special.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve been here before. His name wasn’t Corby Jones. It was (former Boston College quarterback) Doug Flutie. And they shot it out one day down in Miami in a game that will live forever. Corby Jones is trying to write another chapter that will live forever,” he said.
But Flutie wrote that saga along with wide receiver Gerard Phelan, who caught the miraculous Hail Mary against Miami in 1984.
And it would be a wide receiver from Nebraska, not the MU quarterback, who would write the ending to the game’s everlasting chapter.
* * *
The game got weird with less than three minutes remaining. Sprinklers suddenly appeared like ghosts and sprayed water into the south end zone.
Musburger couldn’t resist the ominous sign.
“Well, they’ve had five downs here in the past,” he said, referring to the fiasco in 1990 when eventual national champion Colorado got an extra down to beat the Tigers.
His partner, Dan Fouts, was more optimistic.
“This may be their way of keeping the fans from tearing down the goalposts. A little premature, though, I think,” he said.
Fouts was right. Nebraska got one more chance to save its national title hopes. But it would take a flawless drive — and some luck.
The Cornhuskers started at their 33-yard line with 1 minute, 2 seconds remaining. Their three timeouts were gone. Frost and the offense didn’t panic. They reached Missouri’s 12-yard line with seven seconds left.
They rushed to the sidelines to discuss their options with coach Tom Osborne. Frost noticed Osborne was nervous. The coach’s laminated play-calling sheet was shaking. It was the only time Frost saw his mentor get rattled.
Osborne wanted to run an option play out of shotgun, but Frost and quarterbacks coach Turner Gill persuaded him to run a passing play: Shotgun 99 Double Slant. The team had practiced it every day but hadn’t run it all year.
Two receivers lined up on either side of Frost. After the snap, the quarterback looked left, and then swiveled to the right. He fired a pass at Shevin Wiggins. It him in the chest, but MU safety Julian Jones knocked the ball free. It fell toward the ground, just inches away from Piersey’s fingertips.
But then the ball surprisingly popped up in the air. Wiggins had kicked it, sending the ball from the goal line toward the back of the end zone. Nebraska wide receiver Matt Davison darted in from the left, dove toward the deflection and scooped up the ball right before it would have hit the ground.
Frost was oblivious.
“I didn’t see anything because the minute I saw the ball deflect off Shevin’s shoulder pads, I looked up to the clock to make sure we still had time to run another play,” he said. “The clock didn’t stop, so Missouri’s scorekeeper was obviously trying to home cook us a little.”
The crowd was clueless as well. Fans stormed onto the field, sprinting toward the goal posts they were ready to tear down. MU linebacker Van Alexander, 12 at the time, almost made it there.
“We got booted off the field. I paused,” the Columbia native said. “I wasn’t really sure what was going on, but then we finally retreated back.”
Frost knew what had to happen. Kris Brown needed to kick the extra point for the tie. Frost was worried the team would get a penalty for excessive celebration, forcing a longer point-after attempt.
But fans disrupted the action, crowding the field and shaking the goal posts.
Once they were gone, Brown sent the extra point through the still-quivering uprights to tie the score.
The Tigers were crushed while the Cornhuskers went on to win 45-38 in overtime.
* * *
For Nebraska, the play has become sacred because of what the team accomplished afterward. Davison’s catch propelled the Cornhuskers to their most recent national title. Osborne retired after his team walked over Peyton Manning’s Tennessee Volunteers in the Orange Bowl.
All Nebraska fans have stories about that momentous evening. Davison hears them almost every day. He often socializes with fans since he’s an analyst covering football and basketball games for the Husker Sports Network. Davison has met mothers who went into labor during that play. He met another mother and her son Matthew, who was named after Davison and born the day after the play.
“It kind of takes me back, too, that people remember when JFK was shot and where they were when I caught that ball,” he said with a laugh. “Husker fans are crazy.”
They are always smiling when they see him.
“They’re happy because they’re like, ‘Hey, I want to shake the hands that caught the ball. I want to meet the man who made my day.’ It’s pretty special to have such a place in everybody’s heart,” Davison said.
The wide receiver also met two others whose careers were defined by amazing catches: Dwight Clark, who made a leaping catch from Joe Montana in the 1981 AFC Championship, and Phelan, who caught Flutie’s Hail Mary.
The three met at a celebrity golf tournament in 2005. Friends make sure to point out to Davison how his catch differed from Clark’s and Phelan’s.
“I guess I get teased about that play because everybody says, ‘Well, the only difference between you three is Matt was the only one who wasn’t the intended receiver,’” he said.
While celebrated in Nebraska, Davison realizes where he stands in Missouri.
“I’m not very popular when I go to Missouri these days,” he said. “Even in Kansas City sometimes, I’ll get a rash of crap from people who are Missouri fans.”
But the play hasn’t divided the players who participated in the game — the first game that was re-broadcast as an instant classic on ESPN Classic.
Jones, Frost and Davison are friends. During their interviews for this story, the two quarterbacks asked about each other.
“Is he coming down (this weekend), do you know?” asked Jones, an attorney and sports agent in Kansas City.
“Tell him I’ll be calling him here soon,” said Frost, an assistant coach at Northern Iowa.
The two last saw each other at the Big 12 Conference Championship in December. Jones invited Frost to watch the game in his law firm’s luxury box. When the two quarterbacks are seen together, the game inevitably comes up.
“It’s funny. When people see us together, they’ll bring that up,” Jones said. “But that’s the only time when we really talk about it. I kind of give him a hard time and tell him that he owes me his NCAA championship ring.”
Jones has no regrets about his performance 10 years ago.
“I’d done everything I could do,” he said. “There’s nothing more that I had in me at that game.”
Osborne and former MU coach Larry Smith had the most telling exchange moments after the game ended.
“He said, ‘We got lucky,’” Smith said after the game in 1997. “He’s right. They did.”