By Billy Watkins
I couldn’t believe it was really him on the other end of the phone call: L.Q. Smith, or simply “Q” as his friends always called him.
He caught one pass in his Ole Miss football career, from 1974-77 — a 48-yarder from quarterback Tim Ellis late in the fourth quarter to set up the winning touchdown against No. 3 Notre Dame on Sept. 17, 1977 at Jackson’s Veterans Memorial Stadium. The Fighting Irish didn’t lose another game and went on to win the national championship.
Smith’s legend grew with every passing decade because nobody, including a lot of his former teammates, seemed to know where he was or what had happened to him.
But while talking recently with Michael Sweet, a running back and one of Smith’s closest friends during their playing days together in Oxford, I mentioned that I sure wished somebody knew the whereabouts of L.Q.
“Aw, man, I talk to him all the time,” Sweet said.
Sweet gave me Smith’s number, and now there he was — on the phone and ready to fill in 43 years worth of wondering.
Understand, the 20-13 upset of the Fighting Irish is one of the most storied in school history. Notre Dame was a 21-point favorite. It should serve as a reminder to Ole Miss and Mississippi State as the 2020 SEC season kicks off this weekend that anything can happen for three hours on a Saturday in the fall. That’s one of the main reasons we love college football.
The Rebels are 14-point underdogs to visiting Florida, ranked No. 8 in the Associated Press’ preseason poll. State is a 16.5-point underdog at No. 5 LSU, the defending national champion.
Nobody knows what will happen in those two games. And if you think you have an idea of who might be one of the heroes in an upset, think again.
L.Q. Smith, who grew up in Oxford, was on no one’s radar entering the Notre Dame game.
I wasn’t the only one excited that I had learned of Smith’s whereabouts. I phoned Ellis and told him I had an interview lined up that evening.
“You’ve gotta be kidding,” Ellis said. “Where is he?”
Later, Ellis began texting me questions to be sure and ask him. It was as if Bigfoot had agreed to chat.
Turns out, L.Q. Smith, 64, is alive and well in Wilmington, Delaware, his home for the past seven years. He and his wife, Genelle, have been married 22 years. Smith has one child, Lance, from a previous marriage. Lance lives in Virginia and is a manager of a Trader Joe’s store.
Smith owned a hair salon for 30 years, first in San Francisco and later in Silver Springs, Maryland.
His mother still resides in Oxford, and Smith came home last fall to watch the Rebels play Texas A&M.
“Having done some traveling in my life, I consider it a privilege to have grown up in Oxford,” Smith said. “I get back as often as I can.”
Smith was an outstanding running back prospect out of high school. He stood 6-foot-2, weighed 215 pounds and played in the Mississippi High School all-star game with several future Ole Miss teammates, including Ellis.
“He was a physical specimen,” Ellis recalled. “He had size, speed, agility. Everything you would want in a running back. He was a great guy, well liked by his teammates. A good soldier.
“But I just can’t remember why he didn’t play more … he just kinda got lost in the shuffle.”
Smith explained why: “I had a hamstring that gave me trouble throughout my sophomore and junior seasons. That’s why they finally moved me to tight end. They thought it might take some of the stress off of it. And it did.”
The Rebels’ coach at the time was Ken Cooper, a fine gentleman who believed in old-school, smash-mouth football. Run it, play defense, scratch for field position.
“And we had a really good defense that year,” Ellis said.
Ellis was a pure passing quarterback. He also had an “it” factor about him, something that can ’t be coached. And he seemed to always be at his best during crunch time.
But when Cooper converted to a Veer offense in ‘77, he needed a running quarterback. Ellis was relegated to directing the two-minute offense and scout team duties. “I didn’t even think I’d play that day,” he said.
But with 4:53 left in the game and Notre Dame leading 13-10, Ole Miss gained possession at its 20-yard line. Assistant coach Jack Carlisle, who recently turned 91, strongly lobbied for Cooper to put Ellis in the game. Cooper did so.
“When I got in the huddle, there stood L.Q.,” Ellis said. “I was like, ‘What is he doing here?’ ”
Notre Dame entered the game 1-0 with a 19-9 victory over Pitt.
Ole Miss was not exactly on a roll. It had squeaked out a 7-3 win over Memphis State, then lost 34-13 to Alabama. But Ellis remembers that the Rebels had a great week of practice leading up to the Irish.
And while he was running scout team, the coaching staff put in a play that Smith said “was specifically meant for me.”
“We only practiced it a couple of times,” Smith said.
Ellis was later briefed on the play, he just didn’t realize Smith would be the target. “It called for ‘Q’ to line up at tight end on the right side and run a seam or kind of a skinny post,” Ellis said.
A lot was going on late in the fourth quarter. Ole Miss realized it had a chance to make history. Notre Dame realized that September could be mighty hot in the South. And to Cooper’s credit, he had the game moved from night time to the afternoon. As the fourth quarter began, the Notre Dame players were beginning to melt like the witch in the Wizard of Oz.
Another contributing factor: Notre Dame coach Dan Devine had named Rusty Lisch the starting quarterback. And as the Rebels dominated the Irish offense, Devine never countered with Lisch’s backup — Joe Montana, who would go on to win four Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers.
Ellis started The Drive with an incomplete pass, but then connected with tight end Curtis Weathers for 10 yards.
“Curtis and I alternated brining in the plays,” Smith said. “And because of that, the play is a very pronounced memory. I remember everything about it.
“When I heard the coaches call it, I had all that time running onto the field to think about it — sorta like a basketball player standing at the foul line with one second to go. I knew I could not drop this pass in front of a sellout crowd.”
From the 30-yard line, Ellis did a semi-rollout to his right. Without hesitation, he fired the ball toward Smith, who was tightly covered by an Irish linebacker at the 43.
Ellis threw it away from the linebacker, where only Smith had a chance to catch it. Smith reached high and snagged the pass — and that’s when the fun really began.
He raced across the field to his left, made a defender miss at the 45. Wideout Robert Fabris made a key block, taking out two of the Irish. Smith cut upfield, brushed off a defender at the Notre Dame 40. Cut right. Cut back left at the 31 where he received another key block from running back Leon Perry. All-America defensive end Ross Browner finally made the tackle at the Irish 24.
By that time, the media had made its way from the press box to the sideline and I remember thinking that Smith had just covered about 150 yards to gain 48.
Two plays later, Ole Miss took the lead on a play that proved good to them in the red zone with Ellis at quarterback: “866 Flood.” From the 10 yard-line, Ellis rolled right and threw to Storey, who made a great reach-back catch in the flat and ran into the end zone. It was the same play that beat LSU two years earlier, with Ellis throwing to Sweet in the final minutes.
Notre Dame running back Jerome Heavens fumbled on the ensuing possession, and Ole Miss recovered. Hoppy Langley added a field goal.
Remember I mentioned that the Ole Miss defense was dominant? It started with defensive lineman Charlie Cage, who manhandled the Irish front on his way to 17 tackles, several for a loss.
Sophomore Brian Moreland, subbing for the injured Kem Coleman at linebacker, made 12 tackles and recovered two fumbles. Sports Illustrated named Moreland its national collegiate lineman of the week.
Converted quarterback George Plasketes made 15 tackles from his defensive end spot. It was especially meaningful to Plasketes, who grew up 100 miles from the Notre Dame campus.
With Montana taking over at quarterback the next week, Notre Dame routed just about everyone it played the rest of the way, including Miami, Southern Cal and Texas.
Ole Miss finished 5-6.
“I think the biggest thing was that we didn’t put Notre Dame on a pedestal,” Smith recalled. “We prepared for them just like we did for any other team.
“We played a lot of good teams in the SEC, so we were used to playing against great talent. Most physical team I ever played against wasn’t Notre Dame. It was Auburn. Those guys were stout!
“But what I would tell the players (at Ole Miss and State) about this weekend is to support your teammates and give it 100 percent. If you jump offsides, do so 100 percent. You never know what can happen.”
Smith was in the first grade in 1962 when James Meredith became the first black student at Ole Miss. With racial tensions running high, he remembers armed National Guard troops riding his school bus.
When a motorcycle suddenly appeared behind the bus, the National Guardsmen yelled for everyone to duck.
“My sister was older and looking after me,” Smith said. “When the motorcycle went around us, they said we could all get up. I told my sister, ‘I think I’m just gonna stay down here.’ ”
Though he lived only six miles from campus, the first Ole Miss game Smith attended was as a senior in high school, in 1973, when he was being recruited. The Rebels’ football team had only recently integrated with players like Ben Williams, Pete Robertson, Gary Turner and James Reed.
Smith was impressed with the fans, the athletes, the smooth execution of the teams.
And it made him feel a lot more comfortable that his hometown university had players with the same skin color as his.
I asked if he would’ve signed with Ole Miss if the team hadn’t already been integrated.
“To be honest, probably not,” he said. “But when Ole Miss offered me a scholarship, I saw it as a great opportunity. Oxford was home. I would be playing for my home state.
“I’m glad I made the decision to go and play for Ole Miss. And even though my career didn’t go the way I had hoped it would, I’m glad I have that one play for people to remember.”
A whole lot of people are.