Tide Won Thriller Over Rebs 45 Years Ago

Several years ago, we wrote a book for Triumph Publishers in Chicago. The working name of the book was “The Fifty Greatest Plays in Alabama Football History.” But the publisher cut it down to about 32 plays and changed the name to “GameChangers.” Here is a chapter that was cut from the final book.

Alabama Coach Paul Bryant hosted a get-together for sportswriters and bowl representatives late each summer, a low-key event of golf at Willow Point Country Club and cookout at Bryant’s Lake Martin house near Alexander City. In August of 1970, the group discussion turned to the astounding Alabama victory over Ole Miss in 1969. Bama had won a 33-32 thriller over the Mississippi Rebels.

Bryant, who had a reputation for great defensive teams, had the last word. “That was the worst football game I ever saw,” he concluded.

The scoreboard at Legion Field in Birmingham had a history of early-season malfunctions, but in Alabama's third game of 1969 it operated to perfection, even though overworked. The game was nationally televised, a first in prime time for regular season college football. Bryant’s assessment notwithstanding, the electrifying play of both teams earned rave reviews.

Alabama quarterback Scott Hunter was excellent. Mississippi quarterback Archie Manning was extraordinary.

In defeat, Ole Miss shredded the Alabama defense for 609 yards and 30 first downs. Manning personally accounted for 540 yards in total offense, passing for 436 (on 33-52) and rushing for 104 and figured in all five Rebels touchdowns. He ran for three touchdowns and passed for two.

Hunter completed 22 of 29 passes for 300 yards. He had only one touchdown pass, but it was the play that won the shootout.

The teams combined for over 20 school and Southeastern Conference records. The 55 total pass completions was an NCAA record. Both teams ran 80 plays. The shortest scoring drive of the game was 63 yards.

At the half there was no reason to suspect a game for the ages was unfolding. Johnny Musso and Bubba Sawyer had run for touchdowns for Alabama and Manning had a touchdown run for the Rebels. The big play had been a run. Although Alabama was a couple of years away from switching to the wishbone offense, the Tide sometimes used a full-house backfield offense when Bama was close to a goal line – its own or the opponent’s. The Rebels had completed a pass to the Alabama four, but Mike Dean hit the receiver and the ball popped out. Paul Boschung recovered it for Bama at the four. Moving out from the goal line, Bama got the ball to wide receiver George Ranager on a triple-option play and Ranager went 67 yards to the Mississippi 18 to set up Sawyer’s touchdown run.

Alabama had one other big first-half stop. With 35 seconds left before intermission, Jim Duke stopped Ole Miss tailback Randy Reed an inch short of a first down at the Bama 9-yard line.

The second half was a far different story, made particularly interesting because Ole Miss missed an extra-point kick in the third quarter.

The Rebels tied the game at 14-14 on a Manning-to-Floyd Franks pass. Musso had another touchdown run, and Dean kicked his third extra point to make it 21-14. Manning came back with a 17-yard touchdown run, but the Rebels missed the extra-point kick and the Tide led 21-20 going to the fourth quarter. Both teams would score two touchdowns in the final period and both would try two two-point conversions. No conversions were successful.

Ole Miss went up 26-21 on a Manning-to-Riley Myers pass. Alabama retook the lead at 27-26 on a Hunter run. The Rebels made it 32-26 on a Manning run with 7:15 to play. That final Mississippi drive went 65 yards in three plays and used only 22 seconds. Manning completed a 43-yard pass to Vernon Studdard, ran for 21, and then took it in from a yard out.

After the kickoff, Hunter took the Tide 80 yards. He completed a pass to David Bailey for nine yards. Fullback Pete Jilleba ran for 16 to the Bama 45. Hunter then hit tight end Steve Doran for 14 yards and Bailey for 14 more to the Ole Miss 27.

“I think they only got to me one time, but it was on that last drive,” Hunter said. That sack moved Bama back to the 36, but Hunter made up for it with a 22-yard pass to Bailey to the 14.

Three plays later, Alabama faced fourth and 10 and Hunter called a time out.

“Steve Sloan was in the press box and Jimmy Sharpe on the sidelines, but they didn’t give me a play,” Hunter said. “Coach Bryant said, ‘Run the best thing you’ve got.’”

The call was Red Right, 56 Come Back In, Max Protection. “That’s two wide receivers and the tight end go out, and the backs stay in to block,” Hunter said.

“Ranager and I had run it a thousand times in practice. We could do it blind-folded. He could get down field in a hurry with those long strides, and I knew he would run a precise route. He would go down 17 yards, plant, and come back right on line to me. I knew where he would be and he knew where the ball would be. I actually threw it before he planted.”

The problem was the Ole Miss defense. “They had a good call,” Hunter said. “They came with an all-out blitz with an M-stunt by the tackle. He looped around and broke wide open in the middle. I could see that white jersey getting bigger and bigger.

“Johnny Musso’s job was to block the outside linebacker. Johnny was a great player. He saw the tackle out of the corner of his eye and corkscrewed back into him. The guy was about five yards in front of me and then he was gone, his legs cut out from under him. That may be the greatest play I ever saw anyone make without the football.”

Hunter still had to get rid of the ball. He threw it on the line he wanted, but thought it was low. “I got the pass away and then I got hit. I just had to hope that George had been able to catch it. Otherwise, the game was probably over.”

Hunter got up and saw Ranager with the ball in the end zone. He also saw the official standing over a penalty flag.

Ranager said, “The Ole Miss defensive back hit me, and we both fell to the ground. I kind of caught myself, looked up, and there it was. I wasn’t surprised to see the ball coming so quickly. I knew Ole Miss was rushing seven.”

Ranager also knew the flag was for defensive pass interference, but Hunter didn’t know. Hunter looked up the official and asked, “What have you got?”

Hunter said the official told him “defensive pass interference.”

“I said, ‘We decline.’

“He said, ‘Don’t you think I know that?’ and signaled touchdown.”

Hunter said, “It was just throw and hope. It was a great call by Ole Miss and all I could do was pitch it out there and hope that George could get it. He made a great catch.”

Ole Miss would get two more chances, but came up just short.

Alabama tried an onside kick after the final touchdown, but didn’t get the ball. With 2:24 to play, Tide defensive end Ken James stopped Manning’s fourth-and-inches sneak at the Bama 44. The Rebels got the ball back very late and Manning moved his team from its five to the Alabama 42 when time ran out.

There was a lot of talk in the Alabama locker room after the game, but Alvin Samples was too tired to talk. He had played every down as an offensive lineman, playing both guard and tackle, then late in the game moved to nose tackle to help pursue Manning. Sports Illustrated named him lineman of the week.

Bryant’s Alabama teammate, the incomparable Don Hutson, watched the game and was amazed at the number of third down conversions. Hutson said, “Football is a contest of third downs.” Bama made either a first down or touchdown 11 times on third down and once on fourth down. Ole Miss converted eight times on either third or fourth down.

After three games, Hunter had completed 43 of 57 passes, 75.4 percent, and led the nation in passing accuracy.

“It had to please the audience,” Bryant said. “We can’t put on a better show than that. It was a great night when it was all over if you didn’t die of a heart attack.”

Ole Miss Coach John Vaught said, “It was the most explosive game I’ve ever seen. There were two great quarterbacks out on the field tonight. Those passes beat us. They hit those hook passes on us, and they were so tough to cover.”

There was much praise for the heroics of winner Hunter and loser Manning following the game. Sportswriters also lauded the work of Grantland Rice III and Dr. Merrill Jones. Rice and Jones were Alabama’s statisticians, and they had performed quick and accurate work for a game that challenged deadlines when it finally ended at 11:45 p.m.

“To think that offensive records could be set against us. I wonder what folks like Lee Roy Jordan would say about that. I‘ll bet Lee Roy and that crowd can’t believe our defense, especially when they find out I took it over last week. They‘ll be the first to want me to go back to plowing.”

--Paul Bryant, Alabama coach

“Mr. Lawrence Welk is a big man. He was pre-empted last year for the Alabama-Miami game. He’s got one of the highest ratings in TV. He will not be pre-empted this year.”

--Beano Cook, ABC media relations, explaining why the game could not begin until 8:35 p.m.

Scott Hunter

Scott Hunter was Alabama’s starting quarterback for three years (1968-70), but unfortunately in seasons when Bama’s defense was not up to usual standards. Partly for that reason, the teams he quarterbacked had a record of only 20-12-1. (He missed the rematch against Archie Manning and Ole Miss in 1970 because of a shoulder injury.) When his career ended, he had completed 382 of 672 passes for 4,899 yards, all Alabama records. He had records for most passes (55), completions (30), and yards (484) in a game and in a season (157-266 for 2,188). In many instances, he held the top two or three spots in the record book. He was Academic All-SEC. Hunter went on to play in the NFL for seven years with Green Bay, Buffalo, Atlanta, and Detroit.


Quarterback Scott Hunter and tailback Johnny Musso were the principals in one of the few plays ever devised by Alabama Coach Paul Bryant. Bryant insisted that he didn’t invent things; he took the things others invented and used them. But as far as Hunter knows, the halfback pass back to the quarterback was a first. Musso was a left-handed tailback and Hunter, as he has acknowledged, couldn’t outrun many people.

In the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl in Houston at the end of the 1970 season, Alabama found itself in the fourth quarter trailing Oklahoma by four points, 21-17. It was fourth down at the Oklahoma 25. The play looked like a handoff to Musso for a sweep around right end. Hunter slipped off into the left flat.

“I looked back and Johnny was surrounded by those red Oklahoma jerseys,” Hunter said. “But Johnny was a fabulous athlete. He was a left-hander running to his right, so he had to twist back to get the pass off. I saw it coming to me a little low, but I couldn’t kneel down to catch it because it was fourth down. I made sort of a shoe-top catch, and then turned to go up field.

“Our flanker, David Bailey, was right in front of me, running with one-on-one coverage and looking back over his shoulder like he was expecting a pass. The cornerback had to play pass coverage and stayed with Bailey. I was running just a few yards behind them. By the time the cornerback looked back and saw me, it was too late. He looked like he’d seen a ghost when he realized I was running behind him and I had the football. I made it into the end zone.”

Although Alabama plays were called by Quarterbacks Coach Steve Sloan, after the game Bryant said, “I called that Musso pass play. Steve didn’t agree with me completely, but I was right that time.”

The game ended in a 24-24 tie as Oklahoma kicked a field goal in the final minute.

Crazy Catch Video: Hooking A Bizarre Sawfish

BamaMag Top Stories