Anything can happen: Looking back as Ole Miss looks forward to No. 1 Alabama

Posted on Sep 28 2017 - 8:01am by Special contribution from Sam Farris

Jalen Julius and Tony Conner celebrate after a hit applied to Alabama wide receiver Gehrig Dieter. (Photo by: Cameron Brooks)

Following a stunning loss to the Cal Golden Bears, the Ole Miss football team has already started preparing for the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide. Historically, the Rebels have fared well against highly ranked opponents. In 1977, Ole Miss upset Notre Dame, the eventual national champions, and it more recently claimed back-to-back victories in 2014 and 2015 over a top-five Alabama program.

On Sept. 17, 1977, with 48,000 in attendance (a record then) at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson, the Rebels matched up against the nine-time national champion Notre Dame Fighting Irish, who were ranked third in the country by the Associated Press.

James Storey was a junior running back for the Rebels in 1977 and was part of just the third recruiting class that included African-American players. Though Notre Dame’s football legacy is well-documented, Storey said his team was scarcely aware at the time.

“We got ready for them just like any other game,” he said. “Back then, we didn’t know about all their players, coaches and titles. We just knew it was game day.”

The Rebels came into the game as heavy underdogs, having been thrashed by Alabama the previous week. Still, the overwhelming atmosphere did little to faze the players.

“If you look back, (Ole Miss) always seem(s) to play better in big games,” Storey said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of year we’re having. We always get up for the big ones.”

And get up they did, as the Rebels held the Irish to just a single touchdown, and Storey scored two touchdowns. The score to seal the game came in the fourth quarter on a 10-yard pass from quarterback Tim Ellis, a play not originally designed for Storey.

“The clock was running, so we just broke the huddle real quick. One of the guys came on, and I was supposed to shift, but I was already in my stance and was not moving,” he said with a chuckle. “We snapped the ball and it came to me, another ‘right place, right time’ moment.”

Kelly Guin of Tupelo has been a lifelong Ole Miss fan, and he said he remembers the excitement from that night in 1977 as an 11-year-old boy who idolized players like Storey.

“Since the game was in Jackson, it was one of the few home games we didn’t see that year, but we listened to the whole thing on the radio,” Guin said. “I just remember we couldn’t believe we had won. It was a down year, so it felt like we pulled off a miracle.”

The giant-slaying Rebels would strike again 37 years later in 2014, when the national title favorite Crimson Tide of Alabama rolled into Oxford. Projected to win by two scores, the Tide instead fell 23-17. Ole Miss thwarted the Tide’s attempt at revenge the following season in Tuscaloosa, winning a shootout, 43-37.

One of the heroes from the 2014 and 2015 games was current senior place-kicker Gary Wunderlich, who, between the two games, knocked down four field goals and six extra points with a 100 percent success rate. Unlike Storey, Wunderlich said it was impossible to ignore the pressure heading into the big games.

“We came here to play teams like Alabama and games against big-time opponents,” Wunderlich said. “I don’t think anyone can say those games are the same. We get (extra) excited for a challenge.”

When asked about his team’s chances at slaying Goliath once again during next week’s matchup with No. 1 Alabama, the Ole Miss kicker said that if he had not seen it done before, he would not think it possible.

“To think we upset Bama not once but twice is crazy,” he said. “Looking back, though, and seeing that we actually did it gives me the confidence that we can do it again.”

There are some historical similarities that line up in the Rebs’ favor. Both the win against Notre Dame in ’77 and the win against Alabama on the road in ’15 were the third games of the season. In 1977, the team was under the direction of a young head coach, Ken Cooper, once an assistant under the legendary coach Johnny Vaught, much like Matt Luke, who has ascended to the vacated Freeze throne.

“Football is a funny game these days,” Storey said. “Anybody can beat anybody if they play hard and as a team. We did it then, and these boys can do it now.”

Storey echoed the same “see it to believe it” confidence Wunderlich expressed in the Rebels, looking into the future but using the past as a reference.

Despite wins and losses, big games or cupcakes, both of these program greats say they owe much to Ole Miss football and could never forget their big game experiences.

“If it hadn’t been for Ole Miss giving me a chance, I never would have made it anywhere,” Storey said. “I was blessed with the opportunity to play in those big games and play football in general, but I was especially blessed in being able to get an education.”

Wunderlich said the bond of Ole Miss football transcends the game and is something he will always cherish.

“We are a brotherhood, and everything we do, we do it together,” Wunderlich said. “I look forward to being a part of the Ole Miss football family long after my days here are over.”