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Let’s begin by going back to Sept. 16, 1977, back when Ole Miss played its most meaningful home football games in Jackson. And seldom has there been a more significant game than the one they would play the next day against the toast of college football, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
This was Friday night before Saturday’s game. Ole Miss players, coaches, cheerleaders and fans converged on Highland Village, then only five years old, for a huge pep rally. One by one, the team’s seniors were introduced and came to the microphone.
And then it was Tim Ellis’s turn. Said Ellis, smiling, “Hi, I’m Tim Ellis. Remember me?”
Some background: Ellis, at one time, was supposed to be the next Archie Manning. He was tall and lanky and could ever more throw the football. In today’s parlance, Ellis could spin it. But Ole Miss, under then-head coach Ken Cooper, had switched to an option offense, the veer, which required a running quarterback. For all his talents, Ellis was not that. He did not expect to play the next day unless the game got out of hand, which is what most experts expected. Notre Dame was a 21-point favorite.
Coached by Dan Devine, the No. 3 ranked Fighting Irish sported a roster densely populated by future NFL standouts. They had defeated Johnny Majors’ sixth ranked Pitt Panthers 19-9 at Pitt in their opener. Later, they would trounce No. 5 Southern Cal 49-19, Georgia Tech 69-14 and Miami (at Miami) 48-10. Yes, and they would rout undefeated Texas and Heisman Trophy winner Earl Campbell 38-10 in the Cotton Bowl for the national championship.
Notre Dame was college football’s Goliath. Ole Miss, in this case, was David. Few gave the Rebels a chance, including some of the Rebels themselves. That Ole Miss team was treading water, having edged then-Memphis State 7-3 and having been blown out 34-13 by Alabama in its previous games. They would lose to Southern Miss the next week and to Mississippi State later on to finish the season 5-6.
Says Jack Carlisle, who was an Ole Miss offensive assistant at the time, “I had watched every film of Notre Dame from the year before and I had watched their game with Pitt the week before. I’ll tell you the truth, I was just hoping we wouldn’t get embarrassed. Size-wise and talent-wise, we weren’t in their class. I’m serious.”
Carlisle felt no better about it the next day when the Fighting Irish trotted out for pre-game warm-ups in those famous gold helmets. “They were so big I thought the field was going to tilt their way,” Carlisle said. “They made our guys look puny.”
Ole Miss had one factor on its side: Mississippi weather. It was hot and brutally humid that day. Carlisle says Cooper, who died in May at age 80, made many smart coaching decisions against Notre Dame, but his best move was months before when he talked university officials into moving the game from nighttime to the heat of the day.
“I remember Ken coming in to a staff meeting and telling us that he had gotten the Notre Dame game changed from a night game to a day game,” Carlisle said. “That was huge, because it was hot that day, and I mean hot. Those big Notre Dame boys weren’t used to that kind of heat.”
In South Bend, Ind., the Irish had practiced for the previous two weeks during in cool, wet weather. In comparison, playing in Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium that day was like playing in suffocating jungle heat.
Still, nobody expected what proceeded to happen. And isn’t that the beauty of college football? We may think we know what is going to happen. But we don’t. As coaches sometimes put it, “On any given Saturday …”
Saturday, Sept. 17, 1977, was that Saturday. Ole Miss led 3-0 after one quarter and 10-7 at half.
The Ole Miss defense played as if the Rebels were playing with 15 – not 11 – players on the field. The Rebels were everywhere.
Carlisle, who will turn 88 this week and is one of the most successful high school coaches in Mississippi history, was an offensive coach that day but believes that Jim “Big Nasty” Carmody’s defensive game plan was what kept the Rebels in it. “Jim’s defensive plan was masterful,” Carlisle said. “His players knew just what to do.”
Carmody, who at 84 is retired and living in Madison, deflects all credit to the players, especially linebacker Brian Moreland, end George Plasketes and mostly tackle Charlie Cage, who surely played one of the greatest games an Ole Miss defensive lineman has ever played. Cage made 17 tackles, several behind the Notre Dame line. If the weather was the game’s biggest factor, then Charlie Cage, now deceased, was a close second.
Says Tim Ellis, the forgotten quarterback, “Occasionally, when I have nothing to do, I’ll watch the film of that game. Charlie Cage was by far the most dominant player on the field. He ate them alive. He made the first tackle of the game and from then on he put on an all-day ass-whipping.”
Even so, Notre Dame led 13-10 on the strength of two fourth quarter field goals, the second coming with just four minutes, 53 seconds remaining.
Ole Miss starting quarterback Bobby Garner had played a terrific game, running the option. But he had also taken a horrible beating from Notre Dame defensive ends Ross Browner and Willie Fry, two monsters. What’s more, Garner was dehydrated and would need intravenous drips to recover.
Both Cooper and Carlisle knew a change was needed.
“We need to go with our best throwing quarterback,” Cooper said.
“That’s Ellis,” Carlisle responded.
Ole Miss got the ball back on its own 20, needing a field goal to tie, a touchdown to go ahead. “To tell you the truth, against that defense, I was hoping for a field goal,” Carlisle said.
But the Notre Dame defense was wilting. Jackson-area Irish alums had provided huge blocks of ice and huge fans to help keep players cool. By the fourth quarter, both the ice and the Irish had melted.
Said Tim “Remember Me?” Ellis: “By the time I got in the game, the Notre Dame players were throwing up on each other.”
So Ellis went to work. His first pass fell incomplete but his second, to tight end Curtis Weathers, went for 10 yards and a first down. Cooper sent tight end L.Q. Smith into the game for the next play, a move that Carlisle calls “a stroke of genius.”
Notre Dame was expecting sideline passes to stop the clock. The call was for Smith to fake to the sideline, then go over the middle. Ellis hit him at the Ole Miss 40 and Smith zigged and zagged all the way to the Notre Dame 22. Wide receiver Robert Fabris knocked down two Irish defenders with one block.
And get this: It was the only pass L.Q. Smith ever caught as an Ole Miss Rebel.
“After that, we knew we were going to score,” Ellis said.
Running back James Storey then ripped up the middle for 12 yards to the 10 against the gasping Irish defense.
Carlisle sent in running back Roger Gordon with the next play, called “8-66 flood pick” – a rollout pass to the right with a wide receiver setting what was then a legal screen for a running back. The back was supposed to be Gordon, sent in by Carlisle because, said Carlisle, “Roger had the best hands of any running back. Storey was a great fullback, but Roger had better hands.”
Whatever. Storey, who was supposed to switch sides in the backfield with Gordon, did not. “Let’s just say I knew which back was supposed to get the ball,” Storey said.
The screen worked to perfection. Storey, all alone, reached slightly behind him to make what Ellis calls “a fabulous catch.”
Touchdown Ole Miss. The Rebels took the lead. And then, after the ensuing kickoff, Irish running back Jerome Heavens fumbled and Moreland recovered. The Rebels tacked on a field goal. Final score: Ole Miss 20, Notre Dame 13. It happened. It really did.
Watching it all on the Notre Dame sidelines was a reserve quarterback named Joe Montana. That’s right – that Joe Montana. Who knows what would have happened if Dan Devine had inserted Montana into the game as Ole Miss had inserted Tim Ellis? (Montana did enter the next week’s game against Purdue and started every game during the rest of his fabled career.)
Ellis, who lives in Jackson, says he can’t even estimate how many times somebody has told him they were at the game when Ole Miss beat Notre Dame and Joe Montana.
“But Joe Montana didn’t play,” Ellis always tells them.
“And they still swear they saw him play and that we beat Joe Montana,” Ellis said, laughing.
For that matter, Ellis was in the game for only nine plays. “Nine plays,” he said, chuckling again. “That’s how much I played. Nine plays. But those nine plays were pretty much a defining moment for me, at least athletically. I know this. Those nine plays have gotten me a lot more attention than I deserve.”
The sellout crowd that day was announced at 48,200. If so, there were only 48,199 there at the end, and that’s another story.
Tim and Vicki Ellis had been married for three months before Sept. 17, 1977. Vicki was in the stadium for most of that day. But, midway through the fourth quarter, she headed back to Oxford.
“Things weren’t going well for Ole Miss, and Tim wasn’t playing,” she said. “I knew he was going to be disappointed with losing and mad because he didn’t play. I wanted to beat the buses home and be there.”
When Tim threw the game-winning pass – the pass of his life, one of the most famous passes in Ole Miss history – Vicki was pulled over at a Madison exit, listening to the game, hollering, pounding on her steering wheel and crying with joy.
“Since that day, I’ve probably had 200,000 people come up to me and tell me they were there,” Tim Ellis said. “Funny thing is, the person who mattered most to me wasn’t there.”