Dec. 17, 2011
By Jon Cooper
The year 1972 was a year of unexpected highs and lows for Georgia Tech.
It began with a new coach, Bill Fulcher, who replaced Bud Carson, who left following four losing seasons in five years — although the one winning year was the magical 9-3 1970 season. He was greeted with a 34-3 flattening at the hands of No. 15 Tennessee in the season opener.
But just when it looked like the Yellow Jackets were in for a long year, they turned the tables, blasting South Carolina, then pulling off what might have been the turning point of their season, a 21-16 victory over Michigan State in East Lansing.
“My teammates were really sometimes under-estimated. When we went to Michigan State, they had all these big guys, big players, Billy Joe DuPree, Brad Van Pelt. They had these giants and it was sort of like a David and Goliath story that we beat them,” recalled Joe Harris.
“The first pass that [quarterback] Eddie McAshan threw, the long touchdown, (it seemed like there were) 100,000 people in that stadium, I remember you could have dropped a pin and heard it, it was so quiet. They really could not believe that those little guys stopped their big running backs. We had a lot of belief in what we did and knew that we could overcome and make things happen.”
That belief never wavered, even as Georgia Tech bobbed and weaved through the season, never putting together a three-game winning streak, but always bouncing back from even the toughest of situations. The toughest was a controversy regarding McAshen prior to the game against rival Georgia, which resulted in his suspension for that game as well as the bowl game. The ensuing controversy, which drew national attention, led to charges and counter-charges along racial lines and created a tense atmosphere and even protests outside Liberty Bowl Stadium.
At 6-4-1, the Jackets received an invitation to the Liberty Bowl and a game against Iowa State, which came in 5-5-1, but had been ranked as high as No. 12 and had earned the respect of the nation following a 23-23 tie against No. 3 Nebraska.
The Cyclones featured quarterback George Amundson, a converted tailback who gained a Big Eight-record 2,387 yards and earned Big Eight Player of the Year honors, beating out that year’s Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers..
Keeping Amundson in check was a tough task and one that looked too big for the Jackets early on.
After taking a 3-0 lead on a 32-yard field goal by Cam Bonifay, Tech soon found itself staring at a 14-3 deficit, as Admundson hit on a 19-yard TD pass to Ike Harris then ran it in from a yard out. Meanwhile Tech’s offense totaled minus-six yards of offense.
But the resilient Jackets didn’t go away. Led by junior back-up quarterback Jim Stevens and an opportunistic defense, which forced four turnovers on the day (recovering two fumbles and picking off two passes) they regained the lead at 17-14 as Stevens hit Jim Robinson on a nine-yard TD pass then took the lead when safety Gary Faulkner intercepted a pass and took it 19 yards for the score. The lead would be short-lived, as ISU’s Willie Jones returned the ensuing kickoff 93 yards to give the Cyclones a 21-17 halftime lead.
In the third quarter, Stevens threw his second scoring pass of the game, a 22-yard strike to Rob Healy, to put Tech back in front, but Iowa State tied the game on a 30-yard field goal by Tom Goedjen. The game would come down to the final 15 minutes.
Making only the second start of his collegiate career, Stevens played like a veteran. He orchestrated the go-ahead scoring drive early in the fourth, capping it with his third scoring aerial of the game, a three-yard pass to Kevin McNamara. Bonifay’s extra point gave the Jackets a 31-24 lead.
The rest of the game would come down to the defense. The unit had been brilliant at times but also had had its difficulties. They had not won a game all season in which they allowed more than 16 points — the closest was a 36-36 tie against Rice.
They stood stout, especially in the second half, but late in the game, on a short field, following a Stevens fumble, was unable to keep Iowa State from getting to the end zone. Amundson and Harris hooked up for a five-yard pass play with 1:36 left to make the score 31-30.
But Joe Harris and Co. would have the final say.
ISU coach Johnny Majors, who would be coaching his final game for the Cyclones, chose to go for two points and the win.
The Yellow Jackets hadn’t exactly stopped Amundson, who passed for 157 yards, completing 10 of 19 attempts and rushed for a game-high 78 yards. But on the conversion play they rose up, as Tim Macy and Beau Bruce pressured Amundson, whose throw under duress fell incomplete, preserving the 31-30 win.
“The thing I remember was stopping [Amundson],” said Harris. “I remember Bruce Elliott, after we had held them. He was jumping up and down, real excited. He came over and hugged me and said, ‘You were the Most Valuable Player. You deserve the Most Valuable Player, Joe.’ He was really excited. We all were, as a defense, because it was really tough on us dealing with a lot of big guys.”
Stevens completed 12 of 15 passes for 157 yards and the three scores and was named the games outstanding player.
“This has to go in the books as one of the great victories of Georgia Tech, perhaps of college football,” said Fulcher after the game. “Stevens executed almost perfectly. He just got better as the game progressed.”
Harris felt that the Jackets, who finished ranked No. 20 in the final polls, taught a lesson not only to the college football world but to the “little guy” everywhere.
“That’s what I always share with people. It’s not how big you are,” he said. “It’s what you have inside that drives you and if you believe in something you can always overcome.”