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Greatest Game From Every Season: 1959

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Billy Cannon can still make Ole Miss fans cry

billy cannon run
Billy Cannon, surrounded by a bunch of guys who did not tackle him

The LSU-Ole Miss rivalry doesn’t quite have the juice it once did. Ole Miss hasn’t won an SEC title since 1963, and the team has never been to Atlanta since the beginning of the divisional era. Everyone can have a down half century or so, but it has robbed the rivalry of some of its panache.

But there was a time when LSU-Ole Miss was the best rivalry in the nation, a matchup of two of the best teams in the country. They played for SEC titles. Their tilts changed the face of the national title chase. Those days are gone for Ole Miss, but you can breathe life into their souls by stoking the embers of hate in their heart with just two glorious words:

Billy Cannon.

The further a team passes into historical memory, the more they are reduced to stats on the page and just one or two moments. There is no single moment that lives larger in LSU lore than Billy Cannon’s Halloween Run. It’s almost a fable at this point, a mythic story that is trapped in fog, so long ago that it actually occurred in black and white. But it did happen, and for years, it was the story parents told their kids to brainwash them into becoming LSU fans.

LSU won the national title in 1958, and though the team lost some offensive talent from the prior year, LSU still boasted a stout defense and the eventual Heisman Trophy winner in Cannon. LSU came into the season ranked No. 1 and did little to dissuade the voters from that vote.

The Tigers cruised into Halloween with six straight wins. The defense posted four shutouts and had allowed just 6 points all season, a single field goal in 20-plus point wins. But Ole Miss was the No. 3 team in the nation, and had allowed just 7 points all season long. The Rebels had five shutouts, but also boasted of a tremendous offense, averaging 31.5 points a game on the season so far. They had just beaten tenth-ranked Arkansas 28-0, and now seemed poised to ruin the season of their blood rival.

The Game

It was a dark and stormy night.

I know this sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. There were heavy rains earlier in the day, which stopped by game time, but the humidity hung in the air like an overcoat over the stadium. The soggy field dictated play, and Johnny Vaught would elect on occasion to punt on first down due to the weather.

LSU opened the game with a decent drive, getting near midfield when Warren Rabb found Johnny Robinson for a 13-yard gain. Then, early disaster struck. Donnie Daye hit Cannon at midfield, forcing a fumble that was recovered by the hated Billy Brewer.

This was the days of 60-minute men, so Brewer took his place under center after the fumble, but couldn’t get the first down. Charlie Flowers came up a yard short on third down, and Vaught elected to punt, pinning LSU deep.

Cannon broke through the line to get out of the shadow of the goalposts, but he fumbled again. Brewer recovered again, and now Ole Miss had the ball on the LSU 21. Charlie Flowers would rush the ball inside the Tiger ten-yard line, but Cannon partially atoned for his mistakes by dumping Jake Gibbs, who had rotated in as QB, for a two yard loss. Ole Miss settled for a field goal.

That lone field goal would hold up for most of the game, when Cannon would get around to finish atoning for his early mistakes.

But first, the teams had to trade punts. Lots and lots of punts. Football was a different game back then, as we hadn’t seen the liberalization of passing rules. Throw in a wet field and boggy conditions, and the coaches were content to play football as if it were a game of territorial conquest.

The problem for LSU is that the game was being played in its own end. Dietzel tried subbing in the Go squad to revitalize the offense, but it couldn’t make any headway. An Ole Miss punt pinned the LSU offense on its own two-yard line. A booming punt bought LSU some space, but the first quarter ended with Ole Miss near midfield, threatening to score just as they had the entire quarter.

LSU pushed Ole Miss backwards to a third and 17, looking to break out its cycle of terrible field position. Then, disaster struck again. The refs flagged Scotty McClain for pass interference, giving Ole Miss a near impossible long conversion. Ole Miss drove down to the 20-yard stripe. Vaught eschewed a field goal attempt to go for it on fourth, when John Langan knocked down Jake Gibbs’ pass attempt. LSU took over the ball on downs.

LSU would insist on continually giving Ole Miss chances, as the offense seemed incapable of breaking out of its own end. That first drive stood as LSU’s longest foray into the Ole Miss defense, and now the Rebels were getting stronger as the game went on.

Luckily, Ole Miss continued to flounder under pressure. The Rebels offense failed on its second fourth down conversion in as many drives, this time at the 22-yard line. It seemed a minor miracle given the lousy field position, but LSU was ready to escape the half down three.

Then, disaster again. Earl Gros would fumble the ball this time, the third fumble lost this half. For the third time, the man who came up with the ball? Billy f’n Brewer. The Chinese Bandits forced the Rebels offense backwards, but on third and 12, Gibbs scrambled for 13 yards and a first down at the 18. Ole Miss would soon face a third and 5, and Gibbs again would scramble for just enough, gaining 6 yards to the 7.

Things were getting desperate, but the Tigers had an ally: the clock. As time wound down, the Chines Bandits kept forcing Ole Miss to run more plays. The two third down conversions meant this drive, which had started on the 29, already ran 6 plays. Ole Miss ran two more plays, but moved backwards again. Bobby Franklin would then be tripped up in bounds on 3rd down, leaving Ole Miss scrambling to run a fourth down play. There was no time to bring on a kicker, and time expired before Franklin could take the fourth down snap.

Again, LSU had dodged a bullet. LSU had fumbled three times, spent almost the entire half in their own end, yet somehow was down only 3-0 thanks to two fourth down stops and a third fourth down stopped by the halftime gun.

Things changed on the opening drive of the second half, when Cannon intercepted a pass, bringing the ball to the Ole Miss 36. It was the best field position of the night for the Tigers, but the offense sputtered and Wendell Harris missed a 37-yard field goal short.

Now, it was LSU’s turn to threaten. After a multitude of punts, some even on first down. The field position slipped from LSU until another powerful drive, this one keyed by a double reverse to Durel Matherne. LSU would bring the ball to the 20 yard line, but opted go for it on fourth and two. Gros ran into a wall of defenders, and LSU turned the ball over on downs. Ole Miss, remarkably, would punt the ball right back on first down, not wanting to risk the turnover.

LSU would drive the ball inside Ole Miss territory again, and on fourth down, Dietzel reached into his bag of tricks, calling for a fake punt. Cannon lost a yard, and Ole Miss took over the ball again. LSU was the aggressor now, but like Ole Miss in the first half, couldn’t break through the stout defense to score. The third quarter ended as the previous two had, with the score 3-0 in favor of Ole Miss.

Chances were running out for LSU. Ole Miss punted the ball inside the 10, but Cannon fielded the ball. He made the first defender miss, then the next one, then another… and then he was brought down for little gain. But the idea was now in Cannon’s head: he could break a few tackles on a return.

Cannon punted the ball back to Ole Miss from his own 20 on third down. Ole Miss took over on its own 49 with a chance to put the game away. The Rebels moved into LSU territory on first down, getting to the 48. It was as far as they would get, as Lynn LeBlanc made the biggest play no one ever remembers, dropping Gibbs for a ten yard loss. Gibbs, who had averaged 48 yards per punt that night, booted it 47 yards. Well, you know the rest:

Legend has it that a technician tried to lower the sound of the crowd so listeners at home could hear Politz’s call more clearly, only he got it backwards so Politz’s voice was nearly entirely drowned out by the delirious cheers of the Tiger faithful. It makes the famous call sound as if it was swallowed whole by the Tiger fans’ roar.

Eight different Rebels laid a hand on Cannon. None brought him down. But, contrary to legend, the punt return didn’t win the game. There were still exactly ten minutes left, and Johnny Vaught still had a few tricks up his sleeve. Or more accurately, Dietzel’s sleeve.

LSU rode to prominence on its three platoons: the Go Squad, the White Team, and the Chinese Bandits. Vaught copied Dietzel’s three-platoon idea and after Cannon’s touchdown run, sent out a nearly entirely fresh offensive unit. Sophomore Doug Elmore came into the game for the first time.

Slowly but surely, Elmore guided his team down the field. Only throwing the ball once, the Rebels ate up yardage. Cowboy Woodruff and Hoss Anderson took the majority of the carries, again as Ole miss leaned into its fresh legs. After four consecutive first downs and Ole miss at the 23 yard line, Dietzel pulled the Bandits from the game and inserted the White Team.

It didn’t help at first. The Rebels converted the fifth first down of the drive, getting the ball down the 7 with only a minute and half to play. George Blair went right for two yards. Doug Elmore went left for three. Third and goal from the two with the clock ticking under a minute to play. Elmore went left tackle, and was stopped for no gain, setting up fourth and goal. Again, Elmore went left, where he was met by Warren Rabb. Elmore started to throw Rabb off of him to make a final move to the end zone when who should come through a finish the tackle?

Billy Cannon.

After spending most of the first half gifting the Rebels fabulous field position with his fumbles, Cannon came through with the biggest special teams play and defensive stop of the game, maybe in LSU history.

With just 12 seconds left on the clock, LSU preserved victory via the greatest goal line stand that no one ever remembers. Instead, it comes down to a single moment. And that moment belonged to Billy Cannon.

Other Options

Are you f’n kidding me? Unfortunately for LSU, this fairy tale did not have a happy ending. Cannon preserved LSU’s national title hopes for just a week, as LSU would travel to Knoxville and lose to Tennessee 14-13 on their own legendary goal line stand. My mother, to this day, refuses to step foot on Tennessee’s campus because she insists the officials robbed Cannon of the conversion after his late touchdown run, and that he crossed the plane. I could not love my mom any more for this fact. But the official record is that Cannon didn’t cross the goal line, which cost LSU not just the national title, but the SEC title, won by Georgia.

In a bizarre symmetry with LSU’s other Game of the Century, LSU would rematch with its rival in the Sugar Bowl. Dietzel was opposed to the rematch, but AD Jim Corbett held sway. But you can’t recreate the magic. Warren Rabb, Wendell Harris, and Johnny Robinson all sat out the Sugar Bowl with injuries, and Billy Cannon was already negotiating his pro debut with the AFL. LSU lost the rematch in New Orleans by blowout. The score?

21-0.

I swear that scoreline is cursed.

Poll

What’s the Greatest Game From 1959?

This poll is closed

  • 53%
    Billy Cannon beats Ole Miss
    (28 votes)
  • 42%
    Watching the Cannon clip before every other Ole Miss game
    (22 votes)
  • 3%
    I’m an Ole Miss fan, and I hate you
    (2 votes)
52 votes total Vote Now