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The Red Cup Chronicles: 1977 Ole Miss shows Notre Dame what SEC football is all about

Hot, humid and hard hitting.

Ole Miss Athletics

What’s good everyone?! Welcome back to another addition of The Red Cup Chronicles. It has been a little while since we’ve hopped in the time machine, but what better way to start the weekend than with a dub.

On our first six trips, we’ve seen Keith Carter sauce up Rick Pitino’s defense, watched Sikes Orvis, Colby Bortles, Thomas Dillard and Tyler Keenan mash taters, learned the effects of alcohol on football, got bamboozled in Havana, slapped Southwest Baptist up and down the field, and admired the craft of an agitated Archie Manning.

Today, we fire up the phone booth and fly back to a time where college football was played with fans. Hop in!

Where are we going?

It seems as though we simply can’t stay away from the state capital of Mississippi. We’re going to Jackson. We’re going to mess around.

Instead of retelling the history of the city or discussing the ever-so-lovely Veteran’s Memorial Stadium for a second time, we’ll take a different approach this week and focus on the hero of this story, James Storey. Storey is from a small town of Ripley, Mississippi and still works there today in the school system.

Seated comfortably in Tippah County, which touches the Tennessee border, Ripley has a total area of 11.5 square miles and holds a population of about 5,000 folks. It’s a small town full of hardworking people with a big vision, and has the modest distinction of having one of the oldest outdoor Flea Market venues in the nation.

The town was founded in 1837 and claimed home for a man near and dear to Oxford and Ole Miss history. Colonel William Clark Falkner, the great-grandfather of William Faulker, was a prominent resident of Ripley in the mid to late-19th century. William Clark’s exploits around the town served as the model for his great-grandson’s novel Sartoris.

The book, first printed in 1929, portrayed the decay of the Mississippi aristocracy after the social upheaval of the Civil War. The main character, Colonel John Sartoris, would not have existed without Ripley.

What brings us there?

Well, as I said, this week is a little bit different. We’re not headed to Ripley, but back to Jackson. However, the man at the forefront chose to leave Ripley and join of one of the first classes at the University of Mississippi that included black football players. Ben Williams, James Reed, Pete Robertson and Gary Turner were on the roster, but there were not many. James Storey chose to play alongside them and they are each legends in their own right.

Storey, 6-foot-0, 200-pound freshman arrived at Ole Miss as a defensive player, but head coach Ken Cooper felt he could contribute best as a fullback entering his sophomore year. The Rebels won three games in Cooper’s first year, six in the second, five in the third, and entered week three of the 1977 at 1-1 with a win over Memphis State and a loss to No. 6 Alabama. This is where we land today.

Notre Dame was coming off of a 9-3 year in 1976 and came south to Mississippi after beating No. 7 Pittsburgh 19-9 with a freshman named Joe Montana under center. On the other side of the ball, the Rebels gave the starting nod to quarterback Bobby Garner (this will be important later) and played much of its veer-option offense through Storey and his backfield counterpart Leon Perry.

It was a sunny afternoon on September 17, 1977 when 48,200 whiskey-fueled fans packed into The Vet for a unique, non-conference matchup that favored the Irish by 21 points. Notre Dame was college football’s Goliath, and Ole Miss was David. As is typical of Mississippi in late September, it was hotter than a billy goat with a blow torch. The stifling heat was new to the Catholics from Indiana and played in favor of the Rebels.

“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,” said Ole Miss assistant coach Jack Carlisle. “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.”

Ole Miss led 3-0 after the first quarter and went up 10-7 after Storey hauled in a short touchdown just before halftime. He only caught seven passes all season, and three went for touchdowns. The first came here from Garner and made for an epic photo.

Ole Miss Athletics

On the defensive side of the ball, the Landshark defense was swarming like sharks far before the moniker came into existence. Nose tackle Charlie Cage put on the best single-game performance by an Ole Miss defensive lineman and made 17 total tackles on the day. For comparison, the Merlin Robert Nkemdiche never recorded more than six in a game.

Cage and the heat had slowed the Irish, but still, the Rebels trailed 13-10 with just four minutes and 53 seconds remaining. Garner, who had played a good game running the option had also fallen victim to the soul-sucking heat and would need an IV to recover.

As a result, head coach Cooper tapped third-string Tim Ellis to step in at quarterback for what could be the winning drive. Ellis could throw the laces off of a football and, at one time, was supposed to be the next Archie Manning. For all his talents, he was not a rushing quarterback, which Cooper’s offense required. Thus, Ellis was pushed further down on the depth chart. He was not expected to see time in such a crucial game at all, let alone with under five minutes remaining.

In fact, at the Ole Miss pep rally the night before, the seniors were introduced one by one and came to the microphone. Ellis joked, “Hi, I’m Tim Ellis. Remember me?”

Less than 24 hours later, he would not be forgotten.

The Rebels got the ball back on its own 20-yard-line and needed a field goal to tie. The Irish defense, which had played well all game, was melting alongside the huge blocks of ice hoping to keep them cool on the sidelines. Notre Dame players were literally throwing up on each other. Gross.

Ellis’ first pass hit the turf, but his second went for a first down.

Tight end L.Q. Smith entered the game on the next play, as the defense was expecting a sideline pass to stop the clock. Instead, Smith faked to the sideline and streaked back across the middle. Ellis hit him in stride and Smith ran all the way to the opposite 22-yard-line. That play was the only pass Smith would ever catch as a Rebel. Everything really came together at the right time.

Ole Miss Athletics

Storey ran for 12 yards on the next play and set Ole Miss up with a first-and-goal from the 10-yard-line. On the next play, Ellis ran an “8-66 flood pick” and rolled out to the right. The wide receiver set what was a legal screen at the time, and the running back slipped in to the flat. Storey, before the play, was supposed to switch sides of the backfield with Roger Gordon, who had the better hands. He did not, but the screen worked to perfection.

“Let’s just say I knew which back was supposed to get the ball,” said Storey.

Storey was all by himself and Ellis released the ball right as a defensive end crashed down. The ball floated over the outreached arms and dropped in slightly behind Storey. He reached back, secured the catch with one hand and scampered into the end zone for six.

The defense forced a fumble on the next possession and the Rebels won the game 20-13.

Notre Dame suffered its only loss that day in Jackson and went on to finish the year ranked No. 1. Ole Miss, by transitive property, won the 1977 National Championship.

For the first time in program history, Notre Dame will play the 2020 college football season as part of a conference. Due to COVID-19, the Irish have been forced to join the ACC and will face a slate of opponents without the service academies, USC, Stanford, or Big 10 schools. Perhaps that is for the best, seeing how big of a beat down that the SEC has put on them over time. See: 2013 National Championship.

Joe Montana may be in the Hall of Fame, but he will forever have to live with his loss to Ole Miss. Although, I’m sure he sleeps just fine after a long day walking around in his Shape-Ups.