What goes up and down on a string, sometimes getting tangled and at other times performing smooth tricks? It is the Missouri football team.
Some people are under the impression that the Missouri Tigers have become the Missouri Yo-Yos or Roller Coasters or Elevators. Missouri is the kind of team that makes college football a wild trip for those who dabble in school loyalty and/or point spreads. It is a squad with so many ups and downs that the players should take Dramamine before each game.
We have come to expect that the Yo-Yos will race onto the field and beat the brains out of hotshots like Ohio State, Alabama and USC. Then the next week they stumble out and lose to the likes of Catch as Catch Can University and the all-star team from the men's church league. Coach Al Onofrio says, "We don't think of ourselves as a roller coaster team." Maybe, but since 1972 Missouri has scored nine huge upset victories involving the nation's top teams, and six of them have come on the road. But some of the losses in between have caused giggles. And it seems the more injuries Missouri has, the better it does.
This year has been the most unpredictable of all. Mizzou, not generally picked among the Top 20, opened on the Coast against eighth-rated USC. The star of the Missouri team was Steve (Zark) Pisarkiewicz, who was on the verge of breaking all of the legendary Paul Christman's passing records. On the Monday before the game, Steve—who truly believes that today is great but tomorrow will be better—dived for a ball in practice and jammed his shoulder. The next night, he was cleaning out his garage when he gashed the middle finger of his passing hand on a broken bottle. It later took a skin graft and four stitches to put Zark together again. In this condition at USC, he threw for three touchdowns, Tailback Curtis Brown scored three times, and the Yo-Yos absolutely blew the Trojans away, 46-25.
Coming home to play Illinois, ranked 346th, the Tigers promptly got whacked 31-6. And Zark got hurt some more. So Missouri patched up its wounded and went to Columbus (shudder) to play second-ranked Ohio State. This time the quarterback was Pete Woods, who had never started a college game. In a frantic finish, Missouri won 22-21. Said the ever-genial Woods, "This was a good chance for me, and I didn't want to louse it up."
Missouri thumped North Carolina (then undefeated and ranked No. 14), got past weak Kansas State in a struggle but then lost 21-17 to Iowa State. Zark was hurt again in his first action since Illinois. So was Brown. So was one of the two best defensive players, Linebacker Chris Garlich. All of which put Mizzou in perfect shape to go to Lincoln last weekend and play No. 3 Nebraska. "I don't think we're super yet," said Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne, "but we do have the potential to be good. Very, very good." In fact, after a disappointing season-opening tie at LSU, the Cornhuskers had won five straight, averaging 40 points a game, and fans were starting to whisper again that it just might be possible for the team to sneak up on a national championship.
Just the situation Missouri loves. Minus its two best offensive players and trying to cover up an ailing defense, Missouri limped into town. The next day the Tigers thrashed Nebraska 34-24. Osborne, looking like a man who had waited three hours in the rain for a bus, then missed it when he leaned over to tie his shoes, shrugged. "It's just one of those things. Every time we mess up, we seem to be playing Missouri."
Other teams know the feeling. In 1972 Nebraska set down Mizzou 62-0, after which the Yo-Yos, battered and crippled, went to South Bend and beat No. 8 Notre Dame 30-26. In 1974 Wisconsin whipped Missouri 59-20 in a game that was not that close; the next week Missouri went to No. 5 Nebraska, fell behind 10-0 and, out of the confusion, emerged a winner, 21-10. Last year Missouri opened at No. 2 Alabama, and television people worried that 'Bama would be so far ahead at the half that viewers would turn to their woodworking. Mizzou won 20-7. Occasionally the Tigers play giant killer at home, too. They dropped Colorado in 1972, Nebraska in 1973 and Arizona State in 1974; each was in the Top Ten at the time.
Since consistency is viewed as a worthy aspiration, it irks Onofrio greatly that inconsistency is becoming his team's hallmark. It also irks some fans, one of whom tore up his season tickets at the Iowa State game and vowed never to return. "You win a big game," says Onofrio, "and that sets you up as a big target. It's hard to get so many maximum performances in a row." Onofrio also guesses that his team does well in big games on the road because there are fewer distractions.
It has been a tradition at Missouri to take on difficult schedules. In 1978, for example, Missouri opens at Notre Dame, then returns home to play Alabama. But there are those who say that while big intersectional games may excite fans and bring in big bucks, Missouri perhaps is left too emotionally and physically exhausted to sustain itself in the cannibalistic Big Eight conference battle. Assistant Coach John Kadlec says, "The kind of kids we want like the challenge of playing this kind of schedule." Was the schedule what lured Tailback Dean Leibson here from Corning, N.Y.? "No, actually it was the girls," he says. Maybe Onofrio is right: in Columbia there obviously are distractions.
It has become an obsession with Onofrio to try to celebrate wins moderately and minimize agony over defeats. The coaches have talked about the problem and this year are stressing individual and team goals for each game—trying to establish that an intercepted pass against Kansas State is as important as one against Oklahoma. "What I wonder," says Onofrio, staring into a dish of strawberry ice cream, "is whether we are overachieving and winning, or underachieving and losing."
There was no underachieving against Nebraska. Missouri got in the first licks when Rob Fitzgerald intercepted a Vince Ferragamo pass. Woods promptly connected on a 44-yard pass play to Joe Stewart, described by his coaches as roughly 200% improved over last year. Woods then ran it over from a yard away.
After that the points came like a blizzard. Larry Valasek zipped through the Mizzou defense and blocked a Monte Montgomery punt. Kent Smith jumped on it in the end zone, and the Nebraska fans saluted the effort with a barrage of oranges, to hint at where they expected to be the night of Jan. 1. Before the half, Monte Anthony got another Nebraska touchdown; Mizzou answered with a Woods-to-Kellen Winslow nine-yard touchdown pass. Less than a minute later, a Nebraska fumble on its own 20 set up another Missouri score by Woods on a sneak, but then Missouri returned the favor by fumbling and Ferragamo soon got it over. To which Missouri countered with a field goal. Toting up, the score at halftime was Missouri 23, Nebraska 18.
A key to the game came in the third quarter as Missouri bogged down and Nebraska went smoothly from its 18 to the Missouri 21. Although Dodie Donnell, a rugged fullback who insists he does not mind blocking because "I just like to knock people down, and it's better I do it in football than out on the street," lost the ball on a fumble, the Cornhuskers kept at it. An Al Eveland field goal narrowed the gap, and another put Nebraska ahead 24-23. The Cornhuskers were purring now and seemed to have the game under control, particularly when Missouri botched the kickoff return. Pinned back at his two with third and 14, Woods was standing in the mist and fretting about life's cruel ways.
Then came the play. In the dry press box above, Assistant Coach Dick Jamie-son ordered the "pro-left, tight, fake dive, 127 Z-Streak." From out of a running formation, Woods let loose a wobbly but true toss that landed in Stewart's hands way down yonder. And at this inopportune moment, a Cornhusker defensive back stumbled. Stewart, who said he was thinking of the importance of holding the ball tight, like while he was running, was alone and home free at last. The 98-yarder was the only pass Woods completed in the second half; the 98-yarder was also a Big Eight record.
A two-point conversion put Missouri ahead 31-24 with 12:50 to play and it was all over when Mark Kirkpatrick, who earlier this year broke a bone in his foot while running backward, intercepted a Ferragamo pass. Tim Gibbons then got his second field goal of the afternoon to give the Tigers their final 10-point margin.
"I've noticed one thing about football," said Onofrio when it was over. "You don't have a chance to beat these big teams if you don't play 'em." For a bunch of Yo-Yos, things were sure looking up once more.