Forty years have passed, but the memories aren’t difficult to access. Duane Wood laughed at being in the wrong place at the right time for a crucial interception. Jeff Keisler remained uncertain if his key reception was actually a catch. Steve Mooney recalled how well the coaching staff called the game. And Bill Curry could still picture the unlikely confidence projected by his freshman walk-on quarterback as he ran out onto the field.
“I look back on it and go, ‘Wow, that was pretty impressive what we were able to do,’” Mooney said.
On Saturday, Georgia Tech will take its shot against No. 4 Notre Dame at Bobby Dodd Stadium in a matchup of a powerhouse chasing a spot in the College Football Playoff against a team that seeks elite status but has given up 121 points in the past two games. ESPN calculates the Jackets' chances of winning at 6%.
Still, should the Yellow Jackets pull the rug out from under Notre Dame, it probably would not measure up to the shocker that their predecessors executed against the same Fighting Irish on the same field 40 years ago, almost to the day. On Nov. 8, 1980, with an undertalented and injury-decimated roster, Tech tied No. 1 Notre Dame 3-3 in one of the most unlikely results in school history. Key figures in the Tech effort recalled the epic moment this week with the AJC.
“We tried hard, but we just weren’t very good,” Curry said. “We caught Notre Dame just at the right time for us.”
The 1980 season was Curry’s first as head coach at Tech and, in fact, anywhere. In transitioning from Pepper Rodgers' tenure, the Jackets were 1-7 – their worst eight-game record since 1934 – and 20-point underdogs to Notre Dame. (Bookmakers have laid the same spread for the latter-day Jackets.) Despite a visit from the most iconic team in college football, only 41,226 showed up that afternoon at Grant Field, well shy of the capacity of 58,121.
“Nobody gave us much of a chance,” Mooney, an inside linebacker who made one of the game’s big plays in the final minute. “And, candidly, given how we had played, I wouldn’t have given us much of a chance, either.”
The Irish were 7-0 and had ascended to the No. 1 spot in the AP poll the previous week from No. 3 after No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 UCLA both lost. Coach Dan Devine’s team was big, fast and talented. In the next four years, NFL teams drafted 20 Notre Dame players, compared with five from Tech.
“I remember thinking Notre Dame was going to beat us by 1,000,” Keisler said.
Tech’s chances seemed torpedoed when starting quarterback Mike Kelley was knocked out of the game in the first quarter when he reinjured his shoulder. He was replaced by Ken Whisenhunt, a freshman walk-on who had been converted to quarterback from wide receiver. His first series was deep in Tech’s end.
Before sending him out to the field, “I turned to him and I said, ‘Ken Whisenhunt, can you get the snap?’ and he looked at me as if I were crazy,” Curry said. “He said, ‘Well, of course I can do that.’”
Curry believes that Whisenhunt’s poise was instrumental in pumping belief into his teammates. In the second quarter, Whisenhunt led a field-goal drive for the Jackets to take a 3-0 lead on Johnny Smith’s 39-yard field goal. A key play was a 23-yard pass to another freshman, wide receiver Jeff Keisler. Now a senior associate athletic director at Tech, Keisler was then an 18-year-old from Gilbert, S.C., the first in his family to attend college. He remembered being surrounded on the play by Notre Dame defenders.
“I think the only reason (Whisenhunt) threw the pass was he saw a friendly shirt, because he had 'em all over him,” Keisler said.
Keisler also recalled being uncertain if he actually made the catch.
Said Curry, “All I know is, it was called a catch, and there was no replay.”
Later in the quarter, a Tech fumble gave the Irish the ball on the Tech 21-yard line. On the next play, quarterback Blair Kiel’s pass was tipped by Mooney and caught by linebacker Duane Wood. It was a serendipitous turn, the kind needed to pull off the feat that Tech did.
“I do remember I was out of position, and I had drifted a little bit,” said Wood, president of a commercial real estate company in Roswell.
Wood, a sophomore, was a star of a stout defensive effort. The Irish had averaged 286 rushing yards and were held to 138 yards on the ground and 252 total. They gave the ball away five times.
“They just couldn’t block him,” said Curry of Wood, whose 171 tackles that season remains second all-time in Tech’s record books.
The defense’s confidence grew throughout the warm, clear afternoon.
“We seemed to have the perfect defense every time there was a big play,” said Mooney, a noted attorney in Atlanta. “And for the one time that year, we executed when they called a good defensive play.”
While managing only one first down in the second half, Tech kept the Irish off the scoreboard until the 4:44 remained in the fourth quarter, when Notre Dame tied with a 47-yard field goal. Mooney made a decisive play late, sacking Kiel on third down for a 17-yard loss in the final minute. As Mooney recalled it, the call was “Eagle Blitz,” and he came in clean and dove at Kiel to bring him down and compel Notre Dame to punt. (Tech played for the win after, throwing a Hail Mary pass on the final play from deep in its end that fell incomplete.)
“I heard somebody say that the Notre Dame coach called the delayed blitz a fantastic call,” Mooney said. “It wasn’t a delayed blitz. It was just because I was so slow that the fullback who was supposed to block took off.”
It wasn’t a perfect day. For one, Tech had chances to win the game. And, also, the Jackets were only half of one of the most historic days in college football history in the state of Georgia. As the one-win Jackets were foiling the Irish, No. 2 Georgia escaped with a 26-21 win over Florida in Jacksonville, Fla., with a 93-yard touchdown pass from Buck Belue to Lindsay Scott in the final two minutes. Both results put UGA on a path to the national championship.
“We’re glad we managed to salvage a tie,” Curry said. “We weren’t happy about helping the Bulldogs, but that just goes with the territory.”
The memories and good feelings are easily stirred. Mooney and Wood both have held onto their game balls and “Shake Down the Thunder from #1” T-shirts that were given out that week as motivational devices.
Credit: Courtesy Duane Woo
Credit: Courtesy Duane Woo
Credit: Courtesy Steve Mooney
Credit: Courtesy Steve Mooney
For Keisler, it has proved a useful way to connect with alumni in his role overseeing giving and engagement. (He also caught a pass in Tech’s upset of No. 2 Alabama in 1981.) In his home gym, where his T-shirt hangs in a frame, Mooney takes inspiration from it as he works out. For Wood, it’s a memory to rehash with old teammates.
“You’ve got those bonds with those guys, and they’re really hard to beat,” Wood said.
Mooney, who plans to watch Saturday’s game from a suite above the north end zone with family and friends to celebrate his impending 60th birthday, has faith in the young men who have followed in his place and who face similarly long odds Saturday.
“If you try your best and get a few breaks and play hard, you can win,” Mooney said. “Or at least tie."