Aug. 25, 2006
ATLANTA (AP) -On Georgia Tech’s second series of the game, quarterback Gary Lanier faked a handoff to the fullback, as he usually did, and began running along the line of scrimmage, as he usually did. Then, he tried something he hardly ever did.
He dropped back to pass.
Before the 5-foot-8 1/2, 170-pound Lanier even had a chance to look for a receiver, he was enveloped by Notre Dame’s massive defensive star, Ross Browner. On the sideline, Yellow Jackets coach Pepper Rodgers watched with disgust as Browner and teammate Willie Fry celebrated the 8-yard loss.
“They jumped up and started strutting around, like they always do when they sack somebody,” Rodgers recalled. “I turned to one of my coaches and said, ‘I’ll tell you this. We may not win this game, but that’s the last time they’re going to strut on our field. From this point on, they’re going to play against the option.”‘
That’s just what the Yellow Jackets did. They never attempted another pass. On a memorable afternoon in 1976, Georgia Tech and its wishbone offense knocked off mighty Notre Dame – ranked No. 11 at the time and the team that would win it all the following season – without ever putting the ball in the air.
Three decades later, these two schools are preparing to open the season next Saturday night at the very same place (though it’s now known as Bobby Dodd Stadium rather than Grant Field) where the Yellow Jackets managed one of the most unique upsets in college football history.
To this day, Lanier is remembered as the quarterback who beat the Fighting Irish with a statistical anomaly that went like this: zero passes attempted, zero passes completed, zero yards passing.
As he travels around the country, speaking to alumni groups and raising money for Georgia Tech’s athletic scholarships, he always gets the same two questions: “Weren’t you the quarterback on the team that beat Notre Dame? Didn’t you go a whole game without throwing a pass?”
Yes and yes.
“I have a 13-year-old son, Mikey, who comes to a lot of Georgia Tech events with me,” said Lanier, who works for the Alexander-Tharpe Fund at his alma mater. “He told me once, ‘Dad, it’s a good thing you beat Notre Dame. Because if you didn’t, no one would even know who you are.’ You know what? He’s absolutely right.”
As a whole, the 1976 season was one to forget for the Yellow Jackets.
They opened with two straight losses at home, including a 42-14 blowout at the hands (or, more accurately, the feet) of Heisman Trophy winner-to-be Tony Dorsett and the Pitt Panthers, who went on to capture the national championship. On the way to finishing 4-6-1, Georgia Tech sustained two more humiliating defeats: 42-7 to visiting Tennessee and 31-7 at lowly Duke.
But it all came together on the first Saturday of November.
Notre Dame arrived at Grant Field with its usual powerhouse, having won six of seven games with a star-studded lineup. The defense featured Browner, Fry, Bob Golic and Luther Bradley. The offense had a quarterback named Joe Montana, though he was a little-known backup that season. Rick Slager was the starter.
The game started predictably enough. Bouncing back from an opening field goal by Georgia Tech, the Fighting Irish built a 14-3 by the second quarter on a pair of touchdown runs by Al Hunter.
Then came the turning point. Georgia Tech got the ball back late in the first half and drove 84 yards for its first touchdown. The biggest play was a 46-yard reverse by little-used receiver Drew Hill, who finally was knocked out of bounds by Bradley. In frustration, the star defensive back drove Hill into a fence surrounding the field, drawing a personal foul penalty that moved the ball to the Notre Dame 8. Lanier carried it in with 23 seconds remaining, and Georgia Tech went to the locker room trailing only 14-10.
“If you had told us before the game that we would go in at halftime down 14-10, we would have taken it,” Lanier said. “We felt good about our chances.”
Late in the third quarter, Georgia Tech drove 80 yards in five plays for its first lead. Fullback Bo Thomas broke off a 45-yard run. David Sims scampered for 20, then finished it off with a 10-yard touchdown after taking a pitch from Lanier. The extra point failed, but it didn’t matter.
Georgia Tech dominated the rest of the way, clinching the victory with 3:58 remaining on Sims’ second touchdown, this one a 16-yarder that capped a 15-play, 66-yard, seven-minute possession.
“Whatever we ran, it seemed to work,” Lanier said, still marveling at the memory.
Ran was the operative word. Even before the game, the Fighting Irish knew they needn’t worry too much about the pass – heck, Lanier put the ball in the air only 33 times all season – but they couldn’t stop the triple-option.
Sometimes, Lanier would stick the ball in Thomas’ gut for a run up the middle. Sometimes, he would pull the ball back, take off down the line and pitch to one of his halfbacks, Sims or star-in-the-making Eddie Lee Ivery. Sometimes, the diminutive quarterback simply would run the ball himself if the defense let him go.
Sims rushed for 122 yards against the Irish, while Ivery had 81 and Thomas tacked on 80. Lanier managed 20 yards on 12 carries when he wasn’t luring in the defense and pitching to one of his backs. In all, the Yellow Jackets rushed for 368 yards, which was, of course, their entire offensive output.
Amazingly enough, it was Hill – stuck with the misfortune of being a receiver in the wishbone – who might have played the biggest role, according to Rodgers. The Irish were playing man-to-man coverage on the outside, but Hill spent much of the game cutting across the middle, ostensibly to block the safety who was assigned to cover the pitch but also luring the cornerback out of position.
“That left a lot of space out there,” Rodgers said. “And Gary Lanier was a great option player. He knew exactly how to handle the ball on the corner.”
The Georgia Tech defense played a huge role, as well. Notre Dame was held to 178 yards – just 34 after halftime. Slager went 8-of-19 for 71 yards, with one interception.
Rodgers still talks about what happened after the game. The flamboyant coach had one of those ’70s perms, which didn’t sit well with the straight-laced Georgia Tech faithful.
“All the Tech people hated that perm,” said Rodgers, now retired after a career that included a coaching stint in the short-lived USFL and several years as vice president of football operations for the NFL’s Washington Redskins.
“Well, after that particular game, my dear, sweet, departed mother Louise heard a woman talking as they were coming out of the stadium. The woman says, ‘I’ll tell you what: That was a really good game, but I still don’t like Pepper’s hair.’ Well, my mother looked at her and said, ‘Maybe Pepper doesn’t like your hair.’ That woman look at her and asks, ‘Who are you?’ And my mother says, ‘I’m his aunt.’
“Needless to say, that was the last of the perm. I got rid of it after that game. You know it’s time for a change when your mother won’t go any higher than aunt after you’ve just beaten Notre Dame.”
There were more changes to come. The wishbone lasted one more season at Georgia Tech before Rodgers, following the trend that eventually would sweep away most of the run-oriented offenses from major-college football, switched to a more conventional scheme centered on Ivery at tailback and relying on more pass plays. It’s a move the old coach still regrets.
“I never should have done that,” Rodgers moaned. “The wishbone is the best offense ever invented. It’s the only offense where you can effectively block everybody.”
As for the rest of the postscript, the Fighting Irish got their payback the following year with a 69-14 rout of Georgia Tech in South Bend. Lanier spent his final two college seasons on the bench, watching Mike Kelley run the new offense. And Rodgers was fired by Georgia Tech after another losing season in ’79, the bloom having long since wilted on the upset of Notre Dame.
But Lanier, Rodgers and Co. will always have the memories of that November afternoon, when Georgia Tech beat the most storied program in college football without throwing a pass.
“When you look back in history,” Rodgers said proudly, “that’s got to be one of the most unusual wins ever.”