Tigers tackle Iowa State in final Big Eight game

Even the most unsuccessful football teams have at least one moment each season they can cherish as a turning point toward better things.

Fortunately for the MU players, that moment will last the entire off-season. The challenge, of course, is to make it last even longer.

In a season finale that couldn't have been more even if the stakes had been divvied beforehand, the Tigers defeated Iowa State 45-31 on Nov. 18 at Faurot Field, salvaging a Big Eight conference victory for the first time this season and the last time ever.

As the door closed on Big Eight play, Missouri managed a share of the cellar. Both the Tigers and the Cyclones finished the year 3-8 and 1-6 in the conference.

But although the Tigers dominated, the loudest cheers came from the Iowa State section. The Cyclones' prize running back and Heisman hopeful, Troy Davis, rushed for 180 yards, becoming only the fifth running back in NCAA history to net 2,000 yards in a season.

As a mob of reporters and fans followed Davis off the field following Missouri's victory, Davis made an appeal to the committee that will select the Heisman Trophy next month.

"Heisman? Yeah, you could say that," Davis said. "I hope I get picked for it, but if I don't, I showed everybody that I can get 2,000 yards, too."

The individual honor might have sufficed for the Iowa State fans, but Missouri got what it wanted, too — a much needed victory and rock-solid offensive performance.

"You don't want to go 0-for, I know that." said MU coach Larry Smith. "One-and-7 is a lot better than 0-for. More than anything else, it was a win. You walk out the locker room in the last game, in the last tick of everything, feeling like you're at least a little rewarded for what you've worked at."

With three touchdowns in the first nine minutes of the game, Missouri certainly was able to receive some early payback.

Tailback Brock Olivo provided much of the firepower, racing for 201 yards and a 14-yard touchdown. But despite the second 200-yard performance of his career, Olivo fell 15 yards short of 1,000 for the season. Last week, Olivo was honored as Honorable Mention All Big-Eight player at perhaps the conference's strongest position.

Quarterback Corby Jones also was a spark against the Cyclones, rushing for 136 yards on 22 carries, including three touchdowns. Jones and Olivo became the first MU teammates to rush for over 100 yards since 1985. Jones, a freshman who gave up his redshirt status to play against Nebraska six games into the season, figures to be a key component of the Missouri offense for the next three years.

"It's a great confidence builder, scoring 40, 45 points on somebody," Jones said. "It makes us look to the future."

Defensive back Clayton Baker admitted the game wasn't the finest hour for the MU defense, but Baker's 67-yard touchdown return off a blocked field goal certainly aided the Tigers, as did several other big plays.

"If the offense scores first, then we feel it's our job to get them back on the field," Baker said. "Like if you're a guy playing poker — if you've got that high hand, you want to keep it on the table."

For the first time this season, the Tigers brought everything they had to the table. The team possibly was motivated by a private meeting between Smith and his players the night before the game.

"Our football team just had a big talk," Smith said. "That's about all I'm going to say about it. I didn't talk. They did."

The talk left some of the senior players teary eyed, and gave others an emotional lift.

"I didn't cry, but a couple guys made me think this is going to be me in a couple of years," said junior safety Demontie Cross. "I know what it feels like because I know I'll probably be the first to come down in tears next year."

Cross joined nose tackle Steve Martin on the Big Eight's Second Team defense. Martin, who came one sack short of the MU all-time record, used his final game to do something he'd always longed to do — publicly criticize the officiating.

"Ah heck, it was due to poor officiating," Martin joked. "I was held feverishly like three or four times, and I had a clean shot on him."

Martin said the Missouri team had progressed since he arrived at MU.

"I don't know what is going to happen" you don't either," he said. "I can definitely say that this was a big step for us in building ourselves as a team."

Whether that rebuilding is compete or will take several more years to accomplish, nobody possibly can know. But the young Missouri squad that started this season might well mature a year from now.

The Tigers will lose only two starters on offense (fullback Antwan Johnson and right tackle Chris Buck) and only four on defense (Martin, tackle Pat Ivey, bandit Kay Blake and strong safety Bo Adams).

With rising stars like Olivo, Jones, Cross, Eddie Brooks and Kenyetta Williams, the Tigers have plenty of potential. But then again, this was true of practically every MU team in these past 11 losing seasons.

But until Missouri set out to prove that 1996 is the exception to the rule, the 1995 MU Tigers are going to savor this moment as long as they can.

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