Christmas Day of 1978 offered an interesting bowl game for those looking for a diversion at their holiday gathering. Purdue and Georgia Tech were both teams returning to the bowl party after a brief absence and a good quarterback and record-setting running back were on display. Here’s a look back at the paths the Boilermakers and Yellow Jackets to reach the 1978 Peach Bowl at Atlanta Fulton County-Stadium.
Jim Young was in his second year as the Purdue head coach, taking over a program that had fallen off the radar and producing very good teams from 1966-69, including a Rose Bowl entrant in ’66. Young’s quarterback was Matt Herrmann, who ranked in the top three of the Big Ten in all the key passing categories—yards, completion percentage, yards-per-attempt.
Herrmann was backed up a good running game. John Macon ran for 913 yards, second in the run-heavy Big Ten. Russell Pope was a quality second option in the backfield and his 35 catches led the team. Herrmann effectively spread the ball around, to wide receivers Mike Harris and Bart Burrell. Freshman tight end Dave Young would eventually become a second-round NFL draft pick and he quickly became a part of the offense this season.
Purdue was unranked to start the season and had a difficult test right out of the gate. They would play Michigan State, who had the Big Ten’s best receiver in Kirk Gibson, a man who would go on to considerable notoriety in his baseball pursuits. Spartan quarterback Ed Smith was the only passer more prolific than Herrmann in the conference.
But the Boilermakers, playing at home, won 21-14 and gave the first indication this season could be a good one. They followed it up with a shutout of Ohio University and even a tough 10-6 loss at Notre Dame wasn’t bad—the Irish were the defending national champions, had Joe Montana at quarterback and would win the Cotton Bowl this season.
A shaky 14-7 home win over a horrible Wake Forest team closed the non-conference schedule, but Purdue immediately came back with its biggest win yet—they knocked off Ohio State 27-16. It wasn’t a vintage Buckeye team and this would be the final year for the legendary Woody Hayes, but it was still big and Purdue got themselves into the national polls for the first time at #19.
Victories over Illinois, Iowa and Northwestern, all terrible teams, lifted the Boilermakers to #12 in the rankings and more important was that they were in sole possession of first place in the Big Ten with three weeks to go. Purdue was 5-0 in the league, with Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State all a game back. And the Boilermakers had already beaten two of those teams.
A visit to mediocre Wisconsin was disappointing, a 24-24 tie, and though it didn’t cost Purdue control of first place, what happened the following week in Ann Arbor did—the Boilermakers were manhandled by Bo Schembecler’s Michigan, 24-6. Purdue, at 5-1-1 in Big Ten play, trailed all three rivals by a half-game and with Michigan and Ohio State going head-to-head in the finale, the Rose Bowl dream was out of reach for the Boilermakers.
Purdue closed the regular season on an up note, beating Lee Corso’s Indiana 20-7 in the rivalry game for the Old Oaken Bucket. They were still ranked #17 and went to the Peach Bowl with an 8-2-1 record.
Georgia Tech had also made its last really big splash in 1966, when they went to the Orange Bowl. The Yellow Jackets had their ups and downs in the ensuing years and mostly averaged out to mediocrity. Pepper Rodgers was looking to make his first bowl appearance since taking over the program in 1974.
Rodgers built his offense around running back Eddie Lee Ivery, who rolled up over 1,500 yards, finished eighth in the Heisman Trophy voting and would become a first-round draft pick of the Green Bay Packers.
Wide receiver Drew Hill was another future NFL player, making two Pro Bowls with the Los Angeles Rams, although Hill was held back by the mediocre quarterback play that characterized a lot of college programs in this era. Mike Kelly completed 49 percent of his passes and threw for a little less than 1,500 yards. Those pedestrian numbers weren’t unusual in the college football world of 1978.
Georgia Tech had a good safety in Don Bessilleu, who got some All-American mention. Bessilleu would be the only one at this year’s Peach Bowl to get All-American votes in 1978.
The Yellow Jackets were also unranked to start the year and they didn’t do anything to disprove that in the early going. Georgia Tech, then an independent, lost decisively to subpar Duke and to mediocre Cal, the latter at home. A 27-17 win over Tulane was hardly inspiring, nor was a 28-0 win over the Citadel.
But the wins at least built some momentum and now Georgia Tech ripped through a portion of the schedule against teams that were, if not powerhouses, at least ones that would finish .500 or better. The Yellow Jackets won a defensive battle with South Carolina 6-3, edged Miami 24-19 and then went to Auburn and got a 24-10 win, the most impressive victory of the season.
The winning continued with a 17-13 triumph against Florida, then a weak program, and a 42-21 win thumping of Air Force made history. Ivery ran for 356 yards, then a single-game NCAA record. The achievement is even more noteworthy when you consider he played with the flu and threw up on the sidelines between possessions. Ivery has his own version of “The Flu Game”, a la Michael Jordan, as a part of his legacy.
Georgia Tech’s seven-game winning streak finally got the attention of the pollsters who put them at #20. With a home game against Notre Dame, and a road date with 11th-ranked Georgia to close the year, the Yellow Jackets had the chance to rise much higher.
Of course that kind of schedule means you also have the chance to lose and that’s what happened, although both games were competitive. The loss to Notre Dame was 28-21, though the GT fans did not distinguish themselves when they threw whiskey bottles and mackerel at the Irish players. The mackerel was a dig at the Catholic Church, with all of Notre Dame’s players presumably eating fish every Friday.
If the loss at Notre Dame was disappointing and the behavior of the fans embarrassing, the loss at Georgia was simply heartbreaking. Tech led 20-0 and even after blowing the lead and falling behind 21-20, Hill returned a kickoff for a touchdown. The two-point conversion made it 28-21. The Bulldogs drove down the field, but faced a fourth down. The Yellow Jackets allowed a fourth-down touchdown pass, a two-point conversion and lost 29-28. They fell out of the polls for the Peach Bowl.
1978 PEACH BOWL
By rights, the recent history and strong rise of each team should have made for a fairly even game. The one common opponent was Notre Dame and both Purdue and Georgia Tech had played the Irish tough in a losing effort. But the Boilermakers were ready to play and the Yellow Jackets were not.
Purdue’s #3 running back Wally Jones, who would emerge as the program’s featured back in 1979, gave fans a taste of what was to come with a couple early touchdown runs. Herrmann then threw for one touchdown pass and ran for another. All this went down by early in the second quarter and it was 28-0.
Herrmann later threw a touchdown pass to Burrell and the lead grew to 41-7 late in the fourth quarter. Georgia Tech got a couple of touchdowns in the final two minutes that make the score marginally tolerable at 41-21.
Purdue finished the season ranked #13 and Young would have two more strong seasons before stepping down from coaching for a year, then resurfacing at Army. Rodgers went 4-6-1 the following season and was fired. Though he spent his life in football, the Georgia Tech gig was his last head coaching job in college football.