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Game of the Year of the Day, 1978: Missouri 35, Nebraska 31

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Warren Powers’ 1978 Missouri Tigers: one of the 50 best* of all time.

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The Savitar / Missouri archives

The date: November 18, 1978

The matchup: Missouri (6-4) at No. 2 Nebraska (9-1)

The stakes: Win, and NU is in. Nebraska and Tom Osborne finally got past Barry Switzer and Oklahoma, and now the only hurdle remaining between the Huskers and a shot at the national title is a home game against Ol’ Mizzou.

The back story: From 50 Best*:

In 1972, the Tigers beat No. 8 Notre Dame and No. 12 Iowa State. In 1973, they beat No. 2 Nebraska and No. 19 SMU. In 1974, No. 5 Nebraska and No. 7 Arizona State were the victims. In 1975, Mizzou handed Alabama its only loss of the season in a 20-7 nationally televised pasting in Birmingham. In 1976, the Tigers pummeled USC in Los Angeles in week one (the Trojans’ only loss of the year), won at No. 2 Ohio State two weeks later, and beat No. 3 Nebraska and No. 14 Colorado.

Despite these incredible wins, Mizzou never finished better than 8-4 in any of these seasons because, while the Tigers took on all comers in non-conference play, they almost always ran out of gas before November. And they almost always lost to rival Kansas.

Missouri was college football’s giant killer in the 1970s, and 1978 was maybe the Tigers’ masterpiece. They opened the season by knocking off No. 5 Notre Dame in South Bend and led No. 1 Alabama at halftime the next week before fading.

They were 5-2 and 13th in the country when they fell asleep at home and blew a 27-7 lead against Colorado and falling, 28-27. And with many key pieces missing, they lost at Oklahoma State by 15.

Former Nebraska defensive back Warren Powers’ first season in Columbia was threatening to fall apart. Meanwhile, in Tom Osborne’s sixth season in Lincoln, everything was coming together. NU had finished in the top 12 in each of his first five seasons but had also gone 0-5 against mighty OU. But they finally beat the top-ranked Sooners, 17-14, at home a week earlier. They were one more win away from a shot at No. 1 Penn State in the Orange Bowl.

The game: From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Missouri drove 74 yards in six plays to score the touchdown that sent the underdog Tigers winging to a 35-31 Big Eight Conference football victory over Nebraska's mighty Cornhuskers here Saturday. James Wilder shed four tacklers as he bulled into the end zone from 7 yards out to score his fourth touchdown of the day with 3 minutes 42 seconds remaining.

Wilder and Nebraska's Rick Berns combined to rush 64 times for 436 yards; Berns scored on an 82-yard burst on the game's opening play, and NU took an early 17-7 lead. But it was 17-14 at halftime thanks to a late-Q2 touchdown pass from Phil Bradley to Kellen Winslow, and two short Wilder touchdowns gave Mizzou a 28-24 lead heading into the fourth quarter.

In NU's 99th straight sellout home game, the Huskers surged back in the fourth quarter, scoring once more to take the lead. But that just set the table for an incredible Missouri touchdown drive, capped by an even more incredible Wilder run.

The box score: Via Newspapers.com:

1978 Missouri-Nebraska box score

The stars all came out — not only did Berns and Wilder have huge days, but so did future hall-of-famer Kellen Winslow, who caught six balls for 132 yards.

This game screwed up everybody’s plans. Instead of the Orange Bowl, Penn State went to the Sugar Bowl to face new No. 2 Alabama — a game that would feature a famous goal-line stand — while Nebraska, having finally cleared the OU hurdle, had to clear it again. The Huskers and Sooners met in an Orange Bowl rematch, and Oklahoma won, 31-24. Osborne and Nebraska wouldn’t finally score their elusive national title for another 16 years.