College football has 6-6, 250-pound quarterbacks that can throw a ball 70 yards with a flick of a wrist, receivers who can run faster than deer and 350-pound nose guards that have the footwork of ballerinas.
Every passing year as decades advance, bigger, stronger, faster players produce indescribable plays and incredible stats.
But more than 40 years after the fact, there are numbers still in the record books from a historic October 1969 Southeastern Conference football Saturday night that seem just as ridiculous today as when they happened.
540 yards total offense in one game. . .by one quarterback. The losing quarterback.
300 yards passing. . .by the winning quarterback.
1,099 yards total offense combined by both teams.
On Oct. 4, 1969, before an ABC-TV national audience watching the network’s first experiment at showing a college game in primetime, quarterbacks Archie Manning of Ole Miss and Scott Hunter of Alabama put on an offensive show so spectacular that it was like a meteor shower hit Birmingham’s Legion Field.
Alabama won 33-32, with Archie collecting that 540 yards total offense –- a SEC single-game record he now shares with former LSU QB Rohan Davey – and Scott hitting 22-of-29 passes for 300 yards.
To this day, Archie remains the only player in SEC history that has run for more than 100 yards (104 yards on 15 carries and three TDs) and thrown for more than 400 yards (33-of-52 for 436 yards, two TDs, one interception) in the same game, accomplished in that crazy back-and-forth scoring contest with the Crimson Tide.
“This day and time, there might be a guy who can do that, probably (Auburn quarterback) Cameron Newton,” says the 61-year-old Archie of Newton, who currently leads the SEC in rushing and who had 408 yards total offense in last weekend’s 37-34 victory over Kentucky. “Of course, he might run for 400 yards and pass for a 100. And there’s (Arkansas quarterback) Ryan Mallett, who might throw for 500 yards one day this year.”
That could happen Saturday, when Arkansas plays at Auburn. Such numbers wouldn’t be a surprise, considering today’s buffed athletes operating super sophisticated no-huddle offenses that adjust on the run.
But back in ’69, almost three months after man first walked on the moon, when SEC football consisted of mostly handoffs and bull-necked run stoppers, Archie and Scott ripped and roared in an offensive shootout that old-timers still brag about.
“Since that game, Archie and I have figured between the two of us that 250,000 people have told us they were there that night,” says Scott, 62. “We know Legion Field didn’t hold but 72,000 back then.”
The attendance that night was 62,858. And one person who was actually there is current Duke coach David Cutcliffe, who ironically later coached both of Archie’s Super Bowl-winning quarterback sons.
Cutcliffe was Peyton Manning’s offensive coordinator at Tennessee and Eli Manning’s head coach at Ole Miss. But long before that, the Birmingham native was just a 15-year-old high school student who just loved the Xs and Os of football.
“Archie and Scott put on the show of all shows, it was pretty special,” recalls Cutcliffe, who attended that ’69 shootout with former Alabama player Bobby Johns. “Being a football freak at the time, the thing I remember most about that game is both teams used more of the field than you were used to seeing.
“In that era, the game was played a lot between the tackles. But that night, that game was played more horizontal. Both teams spread the field and used it unbelievably well. It was just a phenomenal game.”
How did Cutcliffe and the others in Legion Field that night happen to be in the right place at the right time to watch the cosmic offensive convergence of two quarterbacks hotter than firecrackers?
Basically, it was one of the weaker Alabama defenses in the Crimson Tide’s storied history. It didn’t have a clue of how to stop an Ole Miss offense that decided to empty its playbook a week after a 10-9 loss at Kentucky.
The loss, in Ole Miss’ SEC opener, was a shocker. The Rebels returned 17 starters from the ’68 team that went 7-3-1, and figured to make a run for the ’69 title under legendary coach Johnny Vaught.
“Coach Vaught never overlooked anybody,” Archie recalls. “But Kentucky was the only game I ever played for him where it looked like we had our best offensive game plan a bit on the shelf, because we were playing Alabama the next week.
“We tried to get through that Kentucky game with defense, kicking game and pounding it on the ground. We even went with a full-house backfield, a power-I, and we really screwed up. We didn’t play very well and our (offensive) plan wasn’t very wide-open, either.
“So, the Monday before we played Alabama, Coach Vaught said, `We’ve got more talent than that around here. We’re going to turn it loose.’
“I thought we could move the ball on Alabama. Coach Bryant verified this one time in a book he wrote later on, because he said they weren’t very good on defense that year. He always said those were the years he was running around the country playing in too many golf tournaments instead of recruiting.”
ABC-TV network moguls were hoping for an entertaining game. The network was just in its fourth season of broadcasting college football, with Chris Schenkel and Bud Wilkinson handling the announcing wearing their familiar bright yellow blazers.
ABC was taking a huge risk sticking a game in primetime, and also one that didn’t kickoff until almost 8:30. It seems that the star of ABC’s Lawrence Welk Show, bandleader Welk himself, exercised the no-preempt clause in his contract. His show was live from 7 to 8 p.m. CT and he wasn’t going to move it.
That didn’t bother Archie.
“We knew the whole country would see us at night,” Archie says. “I remember all of us talking about it all summer.”
Maybe it was the pregame hype, maybe it was Archie wanting to do something out of the ordinary to shake the doldrums of losing to Kentucky. But when he went to get his ankles taped before the game by Ole Miss trainer Doc Knight, Archie told him, “Doc, put me an Indian wrap on there.”
An Indian wrap? “When I was a freshman, we had a player named Bill “Indian” Matthews, he was later (former Florida quarterback) Shane Matthews daddy,” Archie says. “We called him Indian, and Indian never wore socks when he played. He had his feet and ankle covered with tape.
“I was real close to Doc Knight and that night before the Alabama game, I went in there and got the Indian wrap. It didn’t feel good, it was killing my ankles.”
That didn’t stop Archie from putting the squeeze on the Tide. At halftime, the game was a sedate 14-7 affair with Alabama in the lead. But when Ole Miss took the second half kickoff and drove 65 yards for the game-tying score, it was, as the late Schenkel once told Billy Watkins of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, “when all hell broke loose.”
Suddenly neither team could stop each other. Alabama scored, Ole Miss scored twice (missing an extra point that proved to be the difference), Alabama scored, Ole Miss scored to lead 32-27 with 7:15 left in the game.
“All I was trying to do was catch us up and try to get ahead,” Scott says. “Every time we got the ball, we had to go down and score. I knew we were throwing a lot and we were scoring. Getting the ball in the end zone was all that mattered to me.”
For Archie and his top receivers Floyd Franks (who caught a school record 13 passes, a mark that still stands), Jim Poole and Vernon Studdard, it was like pitchin’ and catchin’ in the backyard.
“They couldn’t stop us and we couldn’t stop them,” Archie says. “We were doing all kinds of things. We were getting our tight end, Jim Poole, open down the middle. One time, we put Vernon Studdard at tight end. He didn’t weigh but 160 pounds, and he got open down the middle, too. We were sort of drawing plays up in the dirt.”
Archie made play after play after play. He had scrambles of 30, 17, 16, 17 and 21 yards. His receivers ran free, much to the chagrin of Alabama coach Bear Bryant.
“On several third downs when Ole Miss had the ball, I’d get off the bench to talk to Coach Bryant about our next offensive series,” Scott says. “There were situations like third-and-15, so it was obvious that we were going to hold them and they would have to punt.
“About that time, Archie would roll out and complete a 25-yard pass for a first down. Coach Bryant would stop talking to me and start yelling at (defensive coordinator) Ken Donahue, questioning his coverage.
“That night, Donahue was like the proverbial deer in the headlights. Coach Bryant kept asking him, `What coverage are we in, Ken?” Donahue didn’t answer him right away, so Coach Bryant fired him on the spot.
“He tells Donahue, `Get off the field, you’re fired.’ I’m standing next to Coach (Jimmy) Sharpe, who would relay me the plays from the press box. I said, `Coach, he just fired Coach Donahue.’ Coach Sharpe said, `Don’t worry about it. He’s already fired him twice this half.’ ”
Alabama re-grouped for its game-winning 80-yard TD drive that ended with Scott’s only scoring strike of the night, a 14-yarder to George Ranager, a Meridian, Miss. native, with 3:42 left to play.
At that point, all Scott could do was stand on the sideline and sweat out one last Ole Miss possession. Archie had his team almost in field goal range at the Alabama 42 when time ran out with Franks trying to get out-of-bounds after his final reception of a long night.
At midfield, Bryant and Vaught, who eventually finished their careers with more SEC championships (14 and six respectively) than anyone else in league history at the time, met for a postgame handshake.
“I meet Bear, he shakes my hand and says, `That's the damned worst football game I ever saw,' ” Vaught said with a laugh in a 2002 interview. "I said, `I agree. Neither one of us could stop anybody.' "
Archie and Scott also found each other for a handshake.
“There was nothing to say,” Scott says. “I shook Archie’s hand and nodded to him. He shook my hand and nodded to me.
“What could you say in a situation like that? Both of you know you’ve played the game of a lifetime. There was more said with the handshake and look that there could have been with words.”
Scott and his teammates were so wound up about the win that when they got back to their Tuscaloosa campus dorm, Bryant Hall, about 2 in the morning, they couldn’t sleep.
“Finally, we went down to this hamburger place that was open all night,” Scott says “They let us out of the dorm so we could go down there and get something to eat so we could go to sleep.
“(Former Alabama and New York Jets quarterback Joe) Namath told me later even though he had a game the next day, he was up in New York watching the game until 1 a.m ET. The next day, after the Jets won, everybody went down to Namath’s club in Manhattan, Broadway Joe’s, except for Namath. He went back to his apartment to sleep he was so tired from staying up so late.”
Archie walked slowly toward Legion Field’s visiting locker room emotionally numb. Ole Miss gained 609 yards total offense, had 30 first downs and Archie threw for what was 25 percent of his passing yardage (1,762 yards) that year in one night.
“That was the most fun I’ve ever had in a game – we’re improvising, our receivers had a great night and we kind of had our way in the second half,” Archie says.
“But I also felt empty. I never experienced gaining 600 yards as a team and losing. We thought before the season that we were going to win the SEC, and suddenly we’re 0-2 in the SEC.”
Ole Miss eventually recovered and finished 8-3 overall and 4-2 in the SEC, including a 27-22 victory over No. 3 Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl. That day, game MVP Archie threw for 273 yards and two TDs. Alabama finished the year a disappointing 6-5 after losing 47-33 to Colorado in the Liberty Bowl.
As the years have passed, Scott and Archie have appreciated that night in Birmingham more and more.
“That was probably the best game I had in a situation where I needed to have that type of game, or we just wouldn’t have won,” Scott says. “If I had overthrown somebody on a key down, we would have lost that game.”
Archie’s performance for the ages lifted his career off the launching pad. He went from being a regional phenomenon to a national name, finishing fourth in Heisman Trophy voting that season and third the next year as a senior in 1970.
“That put me on the map,” Archie says. “Before that Alabama game, I’d usually get a lot of mail mostly from Mississippi and the Mid-South. The week after the Alabama game, I got 5,000 pieces of mail.”
ABC-TV was certainly happy. Years later when Scott was playing in the NFL, he recalls he’d run into ABC execs who told him the network “hit a home run” with the ’69 Ole Miss-Alabama game. The late Schenkel also said, “It was a thriller between two teams that have helped build the history of college football since Day 1. Without question, that game got us going.”
Also several decades later, Archie’s big numbers against ’Bama got him some street cred with his own flesh-and-blood.
“Growing up, Eli, unlike Peyton, never paid any attention to my years at Ole Miss,” Archie says. “So when Eli got to Ole Miss, he’s looking through the media guide and he gave me a call.
“He said, `You know Dad, everybody up here says all these great things about you. But your numbers weren’t very good.’
“The only game that impressed him was that Alabama game.”
Yep, it’s a headturner. Always will be.