LSU’s big win over Ole Miss still fresh after 40 years

Bert Jones hits Brad Davis with a TD pass Show caption
Bert Jones hits Brad Davis with a TD pass

After 40 years, memories of unbelievable win still fresh

Brad Davis says when he needs an emotional lift, he likes to watch the tape.

“It fires me up,’’ he said. “When I’m down, it picks me up.’’

It fires Harry Harrison up, too, but in his case the memory brings on exasperation.

“It haunts me,’’ said Harrison. “All these years later, it still bothers me.’’

Bert Jones says it’s rare for more than a couple of days to go by without someone asking about that game.

Their shared memory is of the night time stood still — some say literally.

When the clock stopped that night 40 seasons ago, 0:01 burned brightly from the Tiger Stadium scoreboard through the Louisiana darkness — and into the souls of the Ole Miss Rebels.

It was the night of LSU’s most improbable — most impossible, some have argued — victory, 17-16 over Ole Miss on Nov. 4, 1972. With that one second, or less, to go, Jones flicked a short pass at the flag to his tailback, Davis, who lost the ball in the lights, juggled it, then spun backwards into the end zone for the touchdown to tie the game.

Harrison was the closest Rebels defender.

“It seemed like time — apart from the clock — stopped,’’ the late Norris Weese, a native of Chalmette but then the Ole Miss quarterback, said afterward, “and the stadium just exploded. In slow motion, everyone seemed to jump 10 feet out of their seats.’’

Amid the pandemonium of Tiger Stadium, Rusty Jackson kicked the game-winning PAT with 0:00 on the clock.

Now, four decades later, the boys of ’72 are now the grandfathers of 2012. But everyone in a two-state perimeter following football that season still remembers that night.

Someone in Mississippi was livid enough to pay for a billboard that went up on the state line: “Entering Louisiana. Set your clocks back four seconds.’’

Jones and Davis will be at Saturday afternoon’s game with Ole Miss to commemorate their unforgettable moment. Fittingly enough, perhaps, Harrison will be back, too, in the Ole Miss broadcast booth as one of the team’s announcers.

“When I see them going out there,’’ Harrison said, “I’m going to open the window and yell down to them, ‘Hey, you guys, it didn’t work the first time. Don’t even try to do something like that again!’ ’’

The one thing all agree on is that they can’t believe how fast those 40 years have flown.

“I’m beginning to think the older you get,’’ Jones reflected, “the faster time seems to speed up. It’s like we were out there at the Ole Miss 10 just a few months ago. Forty years ... ”

In LSU’s 119-year football history, this was one of the handful of most memorable Tigers games.

In the last 3:02 of a game dominated by Ole Miss, LSU drove 80 yards, converting two fourth-down situations in a do-or-die drive against the revved-up Rebels — two-touchdown underdogs who had clearly outplayed the Tigers most of the night — to keep alive the nation’s longest victory streak at 11.

Particularly galling to Ole Miss was the fact that the Tigers got off three plays in the final 10 seconds.

The bitter taste of that defeat has never left Harrison, the former Rebels safety, who noted Tiger Stadium was the site of more than one heartbreaking Ole Miss effort. “What is it about that place and Ole Miss?’’

Old-time Rebels remember 1959 (Billy Cannon’s epic punt return to beat Ole Miss 7-3) and 1972 as years the Rebels were beaten in Baton Rouge when they believe they were the better team.

The Rebels had an argument in ’72 that they were the better team — for 59 minutes and 59 seconds.

The biggest error Ole Miss, 4-3 entering the game, made that night came midway in the fourth quarter when the Rebels’ Steve Lavinghouse missed a 27-yard field goal that would have put them ahead 19-10 and sealed the deal against the 7-0 Bayou Bengals.

As the game was winding down, Weese punted into the LSU end zone with those fateful 182 seconds to play.

Suddenly reinvigorated, Jones ignited a pressure-packed drive to get LSU into position to salvage what appeared to be a lost cause. The drama and lingering controversy began after the Tigers reached the Ole Miss 20 with 10 seconds remaining, then got off that trio of plays to pull out the stupefying comeback.

Ole Miss proponents from that day to this contend that LSU benefited from faulty time-keeping, citing the impossibility of running that many plays in so few seconds.

But actually, the controversy centers on one play, not three. With those 10 seconds left, interference was called on Ole Miss for leveling split end Gerald Keigley, stopping the clock with 4 seconds remaining and putting the Tigers at the 10-yard line.

After the next pass was broken up, the one disputed second remained.

Whether the game should have ended on the next-to-last play is the crux of the matter — and very few arguments claim the pass took more than 4 seconds. Because the electric clock runs on tenths of a second, though, LSU could have been working with a hair under 5 seconds, not 4.

James W. Campbell Jr. of Memphis, Tenn., was the electric-clock operator that night, and he said years later the last few plays of that series were handled differently than usual. The clock operator usually stood at the line of scrimmage where he activated a stopped clock at the snap of the ball. But, for some reason, perhaps someone standing on the wire, the cord did not reach the line of scrimmage the final few plays. Campbell said he was trying to see through the feet of the quarterback and center to catch the precise instant of the snap, but couldn’t. He started the clock at the first movement of the quarterback.

“You know that guy (Campbell) was originally from Tupelo, Miss.,’’ the still irked Harrison said. “He must be avoiding me or fate has not brought him my way, because we haven’t met up. And I still want to settle matters with him.’’

The horn went off on the snap, Jones threw and Davis caught the ball and fell backward into the end zone.

“First of all, it was a pick play, and Keigley almost pulled my shoulder pads off,” Harrison argues.

It was not called, and Davis caught the ball — though some contend he never had control as he crossed the goal line and fell to the ground.

“If there was such a thing as replay then as there is today, that play never would have stood.’’

On the other hand, Jones contends that just as on the first play of the sequence, on each of the last two plays, including the winning pass, Ole Miss was again guilty of interference. Neither was called.

Then-SEC commissioner Boyd McWhorter attended the game and said he didn’t even realize there was a controversy until he returned to Birmingham, Ala., the next day.

“I didn’t question it at the time,’’ McWhorter said. “I was like everyone else, caught up in the excitement of a thrilling game.’’

SEC Supervisor of Officials George Gardner brought the film to Georgia Tech and broke it down frame by frame. The SEC could not find fault with Campbell.

“Of course not,’’ Harrison said. “They’re never going to admit they made a mistake.’’

New Orleans sportscaster Buddy Diliberto, responding to pleas from Ole Miss fans, had his television station engineers break down the film, too. They also could not find Campbell in error for what obviously a hairline call.

Billy Kinard, the Rebels coach that night, wasn’t buying any of it. Even years later, Kinard brusquely refused to discuss the issue, but in Lawrence Wells’ book, “Ole Miss Football,” Kinard was quoted as saying, “In my opinion, it ain’t no human way for them to do that.’’

Jones, who went on to an All-Pro career in the NFL, said he is still asked about games he played, but none more than the one against Ole Miss.

“Even if it did start to fade in my memory,’’ he said, “it doesn’t take long before someone brings it up again. I couldn’t get away from that game if I wanted.’’

There is one place he could avoid the subject.

“I notice I never get asked about that game when I’m driving through Mississippi,” he said.