Despite being heavily favored for the 1961 Sugar Bowl, Ole Miss wasn’t razor sharp for Rice, though not a person in the crowd of almost 80,000 would have believed it in the opening three minutes and 20 seconds.
Jake Gibbs, Ole Miss’ “Rifleman,” put up the first points of the day in that span. In a short 52-yard drive, Gibbs, faking a pass at the 8, rolled out around end and scored.
It was an awesome, almost effortless, drive that darkened the festive mood in the Rice section of the stands. Rufus King, an Owl guard, said, “I think we were trying too hard the first time they had the football. We were a little tense…”
Coach Jess Neely found a remedy for the tenseness. He took out most of his starters. So did Rebel Coach Johnny Vaught, although Vaught made the move to give his regulars a rest after their drive.
From that point until the fading moments, Rice starters and subs played Ole Miss on better than even terms. In fact, six inches in another direction on one play of a 78-yard drive might have changed the outcome. Randy Kerbow guided Rice to the Rebel 27 when, on fourth-and-one, he crossed the Rebels up by sending 163-pound halfback Butch Blume wide on a power sweep to the right. “I got some good blocks and made the turn,” Blume explained while demonstrating with a two-step. “I was moving down to the sidelines when my foot went out by no more than six inches. If I had just a little more running room I could have walked in.”
Blume’s run gave Rice a first down at the 10, but two plays later Allen Green intercepted a Kerbow pass at the Rebel 9.
Rice shortly threatened again, but this time Blume’s halfback pass was picked off at the Ole Miss 17.
In the second half, Billy Cox led an impressive 18-play Rice drive. It took four downs to get it in from two and a half yards out, but Blume went around end with four Mississippians on his back to finally get the Owls on the boards.
Max Webb missed the extra point, leaving Ole Miss with a precarious 7-6 lead.
Another interception of the Owls gave Ole Miss possession on the Rice 11. The rejuvenated Owls threw the Rebs back to the 17. There, almost arrogantly, the Rebels again passed up a field goal attempt that could have clinched the victory. Ole Miss was stopped on a running play and Rice took over.
Gibbs finally pulled Ole Miss together. In 10 plays, primarily on the strengths of runners Jim Anderson and Art Doty, Mississippi went 42 yards to camp at the Rice 1. There the Owls fought the Rebels to a standstill for three downs.
Gibbs lined up his teammates – who hadn’t gained a foot since reaching the apron of the goal line – took the snap, stumbled, and then raced wide. He was hit at the goal by two defenders. Barely slipping in and losing the ball in the process. It was ruled Gibbs had already crossed the line before the fumble.
“I almost fouled up on that last touchdown – and we needed it,” Gibbs said. “I came out too fast and slipped. But once I straightened out I had blockers in front of me and knew I’d go in for six.” Ole Miss held a 14-6 lead with five minutes and 16 seconds remaining. That was enough.
Rice out-gained the Rebels 281-186, had a 19-13 advantage in first downs, and ran 81 plays to Ole Miss’ 60. As New Orleans’ columnist Charles “Pie” Dufour put it, “Rice left too many men on base.” Although the Owls held Gibbs to 15 yards rushing, 11 of those yards accounted for both Rebel touchdowns.
Probably the most memorable part of the game for gallant Rice, after the sting of defeat wore off, was sophomore Ray Alborn wobbling off the field after being cracked on a particularly tough play. He walked on legs of jello to the Ole Miss bench to have a seat. “I don’t remember any of it,” Alborn said, “but some teammates came to get me and bring me over to our side of the field. They knew they couldn’t win without me…We did win, didn’t we?”
No, and to point out how important that fact was, Minnesota didn’t win either, losing to the University of Washington in the Rose Bowl. Because of that, Ole Miss, who won its bowl game in less than impressive fashion, found itself atop one poll. In its final ballot, the Football Writers Association of America ranked the rebels No. 1.
Recap excerpted from the book “Sugar Bowl Classic: A History” by Marty Mulé, who covered the game and the organization for decades for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
Miss: Billy Crespino 2-21; George Blair 2-18; art Doty 1-4
Rice: Max Webb 3-31; Butch Blume 2-33; Gary Poage 2-27; Gene Raesz 2-21; Tommy Stellman 2-20
Miller-Digby Award recipient: Jake Gibbs, Ole Miss quarterback