On the last Saturday of 1958’s regular season, Missouri and Kansas pulled off one of the craziest forgotten endings ever. With 18 seconds remaining, down 13-7, Kansas' Homer "Hot Rod" Floyd scored on an 80-yard catch-and-run over the middle to send the Jayhawks from sure defeat to sure victory, only to watch Dale Pidcock block the PAT, ensuring a 13-13 tie.
You could forgive Mizzou fans, then, if they weren't feeling assured of their fates as Kansas quarterback Todd Reesing took to the Arrowhead Stadium field one final time, 49 years and two days later. Missouri had watched a 28-7 lead waft to 34-28, and with 11 seconds left in the biggest game in the history of the rivalry, KU got one final chance from its 11-yard line.
Part of the reason Floyd's touchdown and Pidcock's block were lost to time: neither program fielded memorable teams frequently. In the 1960s, Missouri had four top-10 finishes, and the rivals won three total Big Eight titles. But neither had won a title since. They had combined for eight ranked finishes since the beginning of the 1970s. On the rare occasion one was good, the other was bad.
In 2007, however, each fielded its best team in nearly four decades. Kansas began 11-0, while Missouri was 10-1 with only a loss at Oklahoma.
The winner at Arrowhead would magically be No. 1 in the BCS, heading into the Big 12 title game.
"To know how big the game was going to be was exciting," Reesing tells me 10 years later. "But at the same time, in the back of your head, it’s like, ‘The one year we put this great team together, another team in our own division is doing the same thing? And we could go 11-1 and not even make our conference championship?’
"It was a bittersweet way for things to be set up at the end. If you end up on the wrong side in this game, that’s going to be a shitty way to end the season."
It was almost worse for fans. Kansas-Missouri is a neighbor-vs.-neighbor rivalry that remains fiercely passive-aggressive, even though the two stopped playing when Missouri left for the SEC in 2012. You never want to lose to your neighbor, but this was the game you absolutely could not lose.
Rivalry sharpens the senses. Fear, dread, and exhilaration made 2007 incomparable in what a Kansas City Star writer had once called football’s Bermuda Triangle (the trio of Kansas, Kansas State, and Missouri).
The thought of winning this game was amazing. The thought of losing it was terrifying.
Expectations were high for both heading into the season, but "high" is relative. Nobody was thinking about national titles.
Kansas was hoping to bowl for the third time in five years under Mark Mangino; a 42-17 loss to Missouri had curtailed hopes the year before despite a 6-6 finish.
Gary Pinkel’s Tigers had figured out how to exceed expectations in disappointing ways. They were expected to challenge Nebraska for the Big 12 North, but Pinkel’s ability was still in question.
"We all got together before the season and said, ‘Hey, listen, we understand how much ability we have to go out and show it on a week-to-week basis,’" 2007 Tiger quarterback Chase Daniel says to me. "In 2006, we started off so hot" — the Tigers were 7-1 before a three-game slide — "we just got together and tried to find different ways to really say, ‘What caused the letdown?’
"Really, the leadership just took hold of the team. They were accountable for the team, and that’s really when you see a team really go out and fly."
Against an Illinois that would beat Ohio State and play in the Rose Bowl, Missouri bolted to a 23-6 halftime lead. Four-star redshirt freshman receiver Jeremy Maclin, injured in 2006, scored on a touchdown reception and a punt return to expand the lead to 37-13, but Illinois backup Eddie McGee led three straight touchdown drives to cut Mizzou’s lead to three. Only a last-minute interception by safety Pig Brown — one of the strongest senior leaders — allowed the Tigers to survive.
Maclin had seven more catches in a 13-point win at Ole Miss the next week. He was the only major addition to Mizzou’s two-deep, but his presence was immense.
"I think we all sort of knew what we had with him that year in training camp," Daniel says. "He worked so hard to get himself back, and he was a redshirt freshman, and he played so well that first game. We already knew what we had, but for everyone else in the nation it was his coming out party."
Missouri posted methodical wins over Western Michigan and Illinois State to move to 4-0 and No. 17. Kansas required extra time to earn notice.
The Jayhawks dominated four outmanned non-conference foes — Central Michigan, Southeastern Louisiana, Toledo, and FIU — by a combined 214-23. But the "ain’t played nobody" chorus is hard to shake.
"The point for us when we really knew we had something special is when we had our first road win, our first conference victory in Manhattan [vs. No. 24 Kansas State]," Reesing says. "That was a place we hadn’t won at in 18 years. Our team had been historically poor on the road, poor in Manhattan, et cetera.
"Our offense was putting up pretty staggering points and yards and everything else, but everybody was saying, ‘Yeah, but they haven’t played anybody. That’ll change when they get to the Big 12.’ So to go up there and really not even have that great a day offensively — I think I threw three interceptions — but be able to show our grit in getting a late score on offense and a stop on defense ... that was really the point where everyone said, ‘We’ve got something here.’"
For both, it was hard to claim Big 12 North supremacy before playing Nebraska.
In the 30 years before 2007, the combined winning percentage for Nebraska, Notre Dame, and Miami was .751.
In 2007, it was .361.
The Huskers missed only their second bowl since 1968, the Canes their third since 1982. The Irish followed up two BCS-bowl seasons by going 3-9.
The three had combined for 13 claimed national titles since 1970, including Nebraska’s three in the ‘90s and Miami’s from six years prior to 2007. When we ranked the 10 best programs of each decade, these three teams ranked in the top seven for the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s.
In 2007, Miami was unranked for the entire season after being ranked at some point in every season since 1977. Notre Dame ended an even longer streak, since 1963 (and Charlie Weis would continue being paid for it through 2016). Nebraska held down the bottom of the AP Poll for a while, but finished outside the polls in consecutive seasons for the first time since ‘68.
Each had a signature loss, too:
- Bill Callahan’s Huskers were obliterated by lowly rivals Missouri and Kansas, by a combined 117-45 ... in addition to other obliterations.
- The Irish lost their first five games by multiple scores each, but it was the loss to Navy, ending the longest rivalry winning streak in sports history (43 years), that lingers.
- Randy Shannon’s Hurricanes shut down their time in the old Orange Bowl by getting blasted at the hands of Virginia, 48-0, the worst home shutout loss in school history.
The season that saw barbarians like Boston College, Cal, Kansas, and USF reach No. 2 saw bluebloods falling all year long. The uprising began with No. 5 Michigan’s loss to FCS Appalachian State in the Big House and didn’t stop until the Big East’s West Virginia beat superpower Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.
But it’s easy to overlook just how poorly things went for three of the most successful teams of the previous four decades.
(And things haven’t looked up all that much for these three since, with only Notre Dame’s alleged attendance in the 2012 BCS Championship nearing the group's old championship standard.)
There’s a reason Nebraska fans pretend the Bill Callahan era didn’t happen. The Cornhuskers finished ranked in 2005 and won the North in 2006, but two of their three losing seasons since 1962 happened on the former Raiders coach’s watch.
And Missouri and Kansas — the white meat on NU’s schedule for years — took the Huskers to the woodshed. The Tigers had ended a 25-year losing streak to NU in 2003, before Callahan’s arrival, but in 2005, the Huskers had lost at KU and MU by a combined 81-39.
In 2007, it was a combined 117-45. Mizzou won, 41-6, on October 6. Kansas won, 76-39, on November 3. This was supposed to be the season the Huskers reasserted themselves. Instead, they were fodder for highlight reels.
Reesing: "I think we rattled off 11 consecutive touchdowns at one point? I remember talking to a coach on the sideline and saying, ‘Hey, let’s try to score 100!’ They had beaten the pants off of Kansas for, what was it, 50 straight years before we beat them in 2005?"
(It was 36.)
"And often by pretty lopsided margins. I thought we could get them one real bad whoopin’! That was one really enjoyable game to play. It was a beautiful day in Lawrence."
Daniel: "I’ll always remember the game because of the atmosphere. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was actually my 21st birthday, so it was a fun day all around, and we were just rolling. We had over 400 yards passing and around 250 on the ground."
Mizzou moved to 11th. The Tigers showed well in a loss at No. 6 Oklahoma the next week — they led, 24-23, heading into the fourth quarter before succumbing, 41-31 — but destroyed No. 22 Texas Tech and Colorado by a combined 96-20 to move to No. 7 on Nov. 10.
Kansas was No. 5, already its highest ranking in 39 years. The Jayhawks had eked out road wins over Colorado and Texas A&M, and scoring 76 on Nebraska was too loud to ignore.
With every other team imploding, November was about grinding out wins. KU survived a true freshman receiver named Dez Bryant to beat Oklahoma State in Stillwater, 43-28, then walked over Iowa State to advance to Arrowhead unbeaten.
Missouri had struggled to put away Iowa State, and Brown tore his Achilles. In his absence, junior William Moore raised his game. The Tigers beat Texas A&M and handled Kansas State on the road by 17 points.
On Black Friday, top-ranked LSU fell in triple overtime to Arkansas. Saturday’s stage was set. The battle between No. 3 Missouri and No. 2 Kansas would be for the No. 1 ranking.
All of college football honed in on, of all places, Kansas City.
Through 11 games, Kansas was averaging 45.8 points. Missouri was averaging 42.5. Twenty minutes into MU-KU, however, the score was 7-0 Mizzou.
Reesing: "Throughout most of that season, we were pretty slow in the first quarter. We tended to come out more conservative, trying to get a feel for what the defense was doing before we really got comfortable from a play-calling standpoint. And certainly in a game like that, there’s probably a little extra nerves on behalf of both the offense and the play-callers."
Daniel: "I think it was a little bit of nerves and a little bit of feeling out. Both defenses came out firing in that game. It was scoreless, I think, for most of the first quarter, and then we just started dinking and dunking."
Reesing: "We also had to get used to the elements. It was an extremely cold game. Maybe ideal circumstances for some people, a true November, Midwestern-type of football game."
Mizzou scored on a fourth-and-goal pass to tight end and captain Martin Rucker. On the first play of the second quarter, Reesing hit Kerry Meier for a 39-yard gain, and in an attempt to pounce, looked to Dez Briscoe in the end zone on the next play.
Reesing: "You finally get a big play, you get the crowd excited, everybody’s blood is flowing a little hotter, and you try to take a shot and catch the defense on its heels. That’s a pretty standard approach that a lot of play-callers take. Dezmon had Moore beat by a couple of steps in the end zone."
Moore stepped in front and picked it off at the 2.
"He was running out of room, but the pass came up a little bit short," says Reesing.
Mizzou seized control with a 98-yard drive; in a play that would all but clinch Daniel’s spot as a Heisman finalist, he scrambled on third-and-10 from the KU 11, finding Danario Alexander in the front right corner of the end zone.
Offense took over, but the game remained low-scoring. KU’s Scott Webb missed a 33-yard field goal off the upright, and Mizzou moved to the KU 36 before failing on another fourth-and-1 pass to Rucker. Webb missed a 45-yard field goal wide left, and on KU’s first drive of the second half, the Jayhawks moved to the MU 16 before a deflected pass found Mizzou’s Castine Bridges. He returned the interception to the KU 40, and Jimmy Jackson’s one-yard plunge made it 21-0 Mizzou.
Daniel: "That was a ball-hawking secondary. We were just so fortunate to create turnovers and put the offense in great positions to score. Those guys feasted on all these offenses in the Big 12 back then."
Reesing: "We knew we’d be able to keep moving the ball, based on our success in the second quarter, but we really hurt ourselves. It could have been 14-10 or 14-13 at half, and obviously that came back to bite us in the ass. That’s the nature of the game. Even if they had a slowdown of sorts, they still had enough cushion that — 21 points, that’s a tough deficit to overcome. Not everyone’s got Tom Brady on their side, right?"
Kansas got on the board with a 67-yard touchdown drive, but Mizzou responded with a 14-play, six-minute drive. Daniel connected with running back Derrick Washington for a three-yard score. 28-7, 16 minutes left.
It was cat-and-mouse. KU scored, but Mizzou ate up another three minutes and scored on a 43-yard Jeff Wolfert field goal. Another KU score, another 43-yarder from Wolfert. 34-21, 3:31 left.
KU never relented, though. Reesing and Marcus Henry connected for a five-yard score to make it 34-28 with 2:03 remaining, and KU lined up for an onside kick. Every Mizzou fan assumed the Jayhawks would recover it, but they did not. Mizzou forced KU to burn its last time out. Three plays gained only five yards, and Mizzou got off a 33-yard punt, but Aqib Talib returned it only four yards.
KU ball, 17 seconds left, 89 yards to go ...
... team picture. Safety. Ballgame. Chills.
Daniel: "That’s a game I’ll always remember. Half the fans were blue and red, and half were black and gold. Awesome game."
Reesing: "If we had one more quarter or 10 more minutes, then maybe we could catch them. We really got clicking on offense and our defense got some stops, but we ran out of time."
Rivalry stories never end; they just evolve.
Kansas got their own poetic justice when Mizzou lost to Oklahoma again, the next week in San Antonio.
Orange Bowl officials, evidently watching the sport for the first time all season, didn’t want to select a team that had just gotten blown out, so they selected the team that had just lost to said blown-out team. Kansas went instead of Mizzou; the Jayhawks would take down Virginia Tech while Missouri obliterated Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl. (Here's how the Playoff would've handled it.)
The next year, KU got another form of revenge, erasing a late deficit on a fourth-down, Reesing-to-Meier touchdown to win, 40-37.
"I think there were four touchdowns in the last six minutes," Reesing says, "just back and forth, and the snow was coming down. It was such a perfect environment. We get the ball back with less than two minutes to go. You’ve got the snow coming down. It’s the perfect rivalry game. I was more excited than anything to be in that moment. And obviously to do it on fourth-and-7 and have it go to Kerry on a broken play ... that was kind of amazing."
In the Arrowhead rubber match in 2009, Mizzou closed Reesing’s career with a familiar-looking play.
Mizzou won on a last-second field goal. The 2008 win was Kansas’ last in the series.
If you want the Indian War Drum, Jayhawks, you know where to find it.
This story's author and Podcast Ain't Played Nobody co-host Steven Godfrey talk the 2007 season's madness and the year's actual best teams: