MSU 6, Alabama 3
Mississippi Memorial Stadium
November 1, 1980
They came like death dressed in white.
The Alabama Crimson Tide, the pride of the South, were mounting one last charge. Incredibly, the scoreboard read MSU 6, ALABAMA 3. Few in the stadium could believe what they were seeing.
The same bedraggled Alabama offense, pounded and stuffed all afternoon long by Mississippi State, was forging ahead like a ferocious army. Suddenly Alabama quarterback Don Jacobs looked like the second coming of Joe Namath, finding chinks in the MSU armor, not through the vaunted wishbone, but through the air. A 25-yard pass to Major Ogilvie, paired with first-down tosses to Jesse Bendross and Bart Krout, put Alabama within yards of the winning score.
At the time, Alabama could have written a book on how to beat Mississippi State. When Jacobs squatted behind center, he marshaled all of the confidence of 22 straight victories over this same opponent. Adding to Jacobs’ aplomb was the Tide’s championship pedigree. In the 1978 and 1979 seasons, Alabama won back-to-back national championships and was riding a 28-game win streak when it arrived in Jackson on that immortal day in 1980. Bama’s last loss was against USC on Sept. 23, 1978, at Legion Field in Birmingham, and its last conference loss occurred way back in 1976, when Georgia stunned the Tide, 21-0. In essence, Alabama was the Cadillac of college football programs.
On the other sideline, State was coached by Emory Bellard, the pipe-puffing Texan who was in his second year. While an assistant at the University of Texas, Bellard famously helped head coach Darrell Royal develop the wishbone offense, which led to a national championship in 1969. Now against Alabama, he was charged with defending the offense he’d helped create—a dynamic that gave him a great advantage.
Prior to Bellard’s arrival, State had been wracked with probation and had to forfeit all wins in the 1976 and ‘77 seasons. Alabama had dominated the 1970s—and Mississippi State—so in Starkville, things that go bump in the night included “Bear” Bryant. Now could Mississippi State actually beat this longtime nemesis and erase Bear’s curse? Bellard— a Lyle Waggoner look-alike—had a swagger about him that Mississippi State needed to overcome this massive hurdle.
After years of alternating between Starkville and Tuscaloosa, Alabama and State began the tradition of playing in Jackson in 1964. That year, Bryant’s Tide upended Paul E. Davis’s Bulldogs, 23-6. Before the ’80 game, Bama and MSU had traveled to Jackson a total of seven times.
So when Alabama approached the goal line that November day, either the Tide’s 28-game winning streak was going to end or its streak of consecutive victories over Mississippi State was going to extend.
After the Jacobs-to-Krout pass play, the Crimson Tide had first-and-goal at the 4-yard line. Jacobs lined up in a wishbone set, several hundred pounds of beef—and tradition—behind him.
Ten, nine, eight ticks left on the clock. The heavily maroon crowd pounded the air with their cowbells, the noise deafening.
Jacobs, pleading to the referee for relief from the noise, took the snap and rolled to his right, looking for inches, feet, yards—anything. But before Jacobs could pitch it, MSU defender Tyrone Keys hammered him. The ball jolted out and State’s Billy Jackson jumped all over it.
Bulldogs recover! Bulldogs recover! exclaimed gravel-voiced MSU play-by-play announcer Jack Cristil.
Jackson’s teammates were frenetic in their celebration as he hoisted the ball in the air. But it was Keys’ hit that created the turnover.
“I don’t know if I was supposed to have the quarterback or the fullback,” Keys said after the game. “I just tried to take them both.”
Over 30 years later, Keys had had time to reflect on the moment. “I took that as an insult,” Keys said of Alabama’s decision to run right at him. “I’d already hit him so many times in that game, I couldn’t believe it when he started toward me. Like I say, I hit him like a man who had been insulted.”
After a delay of game penalty, State took over at the 2 with :06 left on the clock. State quarterback John Bond snapped the ball and promptly fumbled in the end zone. Now there was a fight for the ball, as Alabama defenders Tommy Wilcox, E.J. Junior, and Mike Pitts, and State’s Donald Ray King were closest to the loose pigskin.
King ended up with the ball, and the referees waved their arms that the game was over. Soon a mass of people flooded the field, the TV camera zooming to Bryant, wearing a blue coat and snapping his houndstooth hat forward as he solemnly walked off the field.
A jubilant King ran over in front of the Alabama fans and raised a fist to the air.
For Mississippi State, pandemonium was everywhere. In the stands, on the field, in the parking lot, in the locker room. A big ol’ party ensued.
“I’ll take a pitcher, pretty lady. No m’am. Don’t need no glasses,” Orley Hood, Sports Director of the Jackson Daily News, wrote.
State’s ecstasy was matched by Alabama’s agony. Writer Al Browning of The Tuscaloosa News suggested that the Alabama dressing room “resembled a morgue.” Senior offensive tackle Bill Searcy was the embodiment of Alabama’s disappointment. “I just can’t accept this,” Searcy said. “I just can’t. It bothers me a lot. This is my fifth year, and I have worked for this year a long time. This is the first year I’ve gotten to start, and I really wanted to go undefeated and win our third national championship.”
Bryant, the seer, was stoic, nostalgic, and proud in his postgame remarks.
“I thought State outdid us in every phase of the game, but we still had a chance to win at the end,” Bryant said after the game. “I thought we would win, but the crowd took care of that.”
Before addressing the press, Bryant marched into the State locker room and told the boys dressed in a mix of maroon, blood, and sweat: “You did a real fine job. You deserve that victory.”
But then Bryant took some time to review his team—a team that had won more games consecutively than any other Bryant-led group. “I am still proud of this Alabama football team. They are mine, and they have provided us with many happy afternoons.”
Bryant knew that this particular afternoon had been an ugly game of miscues and field goals. Alabama fumbled four times, and had kicker Peter Kim failed to convert a 49-yarder on the last play of the first half, the Tide would not have scored.
State didn’t fare much better in the ugly department: the offense dropped three fumbles of its own, quarterback John Bond was intercepted, and a Dana Moore field goal was swatted away by an Alabama defender.
Mississippi State would not win in this rivalry again until 1996, when Jackie Sherrill’s Bulldogs toppled Gene Stallings’ undefeated Crimson Tide, 17-16, on an eerie night in Starkville.
Against Bryant, State was 1-24. But that one was terrifically special. H&A
A special thanks to Jackson Hinds Library Reference Department for their assistance with the research for this article.