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Every year about this time they come, the meek of college football suddenly, breathtakingly bent on inheriting the earth. The lambs rising up to smite the butchers (mostly pollsters). Figure Pittsburgh. Never mind, you can't figure Pittsburgh. Figure Miami. Miami has a head coach, Pete Elliott, who thought he was safely out of coaching until the former Hurricane coach, Fran Curci, quit to go to Kentucky. The reason Curci left to go to Kentucky, people in Miami said, was that he took a look at Miami's 1973 schedule. Miami's schedule was a brute—Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Notre Dame, Houston, etc. And Miami's record was brutal—four straight losing seasons, accompanied in the last stages by roundelays of player strife and ill will. Furthermore, the Hurricanes were upstaged at home by the ubiquitous Dolphins. No relief was in sight. The program was sinking fast.
So into this breach steps Elliott, down from his chair as Miami's associate athletic director. Elliott knows a case of the adversities when he sees one. At Illinois he had been trapped in a slush-fund scandal that forced his dismissal in 1967. Elliott is calm, cool and collected, as well as an attractive straight-out speaker. The Miami players loved him immediately. Chuck Foreman, the ex-Hurricane now a rookie running star with the Vikings, said he wished he had another year of college "just so I could play for that man." The press adored him ("A touch of class," said The Miami Herald ). The fans did not believe him. With that schedule, they had a right to be skeptical. Only 25,000 of them showed up for the Boston College game last week although Miami had already knocked off Texas and come within a breath of doing the same to Oklahoma in Norman.
It was clear enough, however, that Elliott had a way about him, and the way was working. He also had a junior running back named Woody Thompson. Thompson is equally hard to believe. (One of the things that is hard to believe about him is that he was not a starter last year.) When passing through the halls of the university athletic offices, Woody moves so slowly that George Gallet, the publicist, is afraid he will be arrested for loitering. Woody rarely smiles, says Gallet, but he makes up for it by not talking much. Woody expresses himself by running like mad through defensive lines. When last seen, Woody was running through Boston College, another surprise tough, for 178 yards in a 15-10 victory, and Miami was 3-1 and challenging for higher ground in the Top 20. Maybe you can't figure Miami after all. Put Miami aside for a moment.
Figure Missouri. Missouri is also no stranger to glory but had, since the departure of Dan Devine in 1971, been beating its spears into plowshares. The Tigers played Nebraska last week in a game that brought a record crowd to Columbia ( Missouri's fans are apparently quicker to grasp a situation than Miami's) and helped erase memories of what is was like a year ago. What it was like a year ago was 62-0, Nebraska.
Al Onofrio is the Missouri coach. He is 52 years old and had been an assistant for the last 21 of those—at Arizona State and Missouri—when he was tapped in the wake of Devine's flight to the Green Bay Packers. Like Devine, Onofrio is a conservative who does not mind winning a game two field goals to one. He wears the horned-rim glasses of a deliberate inkhorn and is eminently unquotable ("Which players played well today, Al?" "Well, they all did. I wouldn't want to single out anybody"). Nevertheless, Missouri fans fell in behind Onofrio at his inaugural, their bumper stickers bespeaking allegiance: "Away We Go with Onofrio." The Missouri team then went out and won one of 11 games in 1971, and more than a few of the allies scratched out the "we go" on their stickers. Onofrio ordered no more bumper stickers be pasted around.
The 62-0 loss to Nebraska last year was rock bottom. ( Onofrio's first try at the Cornhuskers was not so bad, only 36-0.) His job on the line, Onofrio then sent his team against highly ranked Notre Dame, and won 30-26. Faith restored, the Tigers went on to a 6-6 season.
But of how great a comeback dare one dream? This was Big Eight football, not Frank Sinatra. Last summer the writers who cover the conference picked Missouri to finish fifth. In September they came on tour for a closer look. This time they picked Missouri to finish fifth again. Well, fifth in the Big Eight ain't bad. But the writers were not listening, otherwise Missouri's ace running back and house speaker, Tommy Reamon, would have tipped them off.
If Woody Thompson of Miami talks with his feet. Tommy Reamon talks for his. Missouri coaches pale at this, but they do love the way Tommy runs. Among other things, Reamon announced he had chosen Missouri over Oklahoma because he did not like the Wishbone offense, that he was a great runner and did not want to waste his time blocking for Greg Pruitt. Ironically, Onofrio had put in the Wishbone last year (Reamon chafed with it for 454 yards), but reverted to the power I this fall. Reamon announced he was "back home" as an I back—at which he had made Junior College All-America at Fort Scott, Kans.—and was prepared to help bring " Missouri football back to where it used to be." He exhorted the writers to "be here to witness it."
On Saturday, many of them were, and so were 68,170 fans spilling like suds over Faurot Field (capacity 55,000) and obliterating the M on the hill behind the north end zone. When you cannot see the M it is a sure sign of fiscal success and fan acceptance. Missouri had earned it with four straight victories, including an upset of SMU, and runner-spokesman Reamon had averaged almost 100 yards a game. And now it was head-on with old No. 2-Ranked Sixty-Two-to-Nothing Nebraska.
The two teams slugged into the final three minutes in a 6-6 tie, Missouri on the strength of Greg Hill's two field goals (see?) and Nebraska on two by Rich Sanger. Then Nebraska's Randy Borg fumbled a punt that was recovered on his four-yard line by Missouri and the game went slightly mad. Missouri scored in two plays. Hill kicked the extra point and it was 13 6. Panic-stricken, and suddenly unstoppable, Nebraska zipped downfield 72 yards on the left-handed passes of David Humm, scoring in four plays, and with a minute on the clock. Still down by a point, Humm tried to pass the ball to Tony Davis for two, but the ball was deflected by Bob McRoberts, a sophomore defensive end, and grabbed off by Safety Tony Gillick.