The story behind Patrick Willis delivering the best form tackle in college football history
Saturday will mark Patrick Willis’ first time seeing his alma mater play in person this season. The College Football Hall of Fame inductee will make the cross-country trip from his home in San Francisco to Baton Rouge to watch his undefeated Ole Miss squad take on LSU. He’ll meet up with his former San Francisco 49ers teammate and LSU star Eric Reid to watch the SEC West showdown. They’re also collaborating to raise awareness for Willis’ non-profit The Whinker’s Mind Youth Fund. Inevitably at some point over the weekend, the Ole Miss legend will be asked a familiar question.
“How did you pull off that tackle against LSU?”
Even for Willis, who had 355 tackles at Ole Miss and another 950 tackles in the NFL, there’s 1 tackle that will always stand out. It’s unofficially the best form tackle in the history of college football. You can guarantee it’s been shown in high school and college film sessions from coast to coast. The tackle was so impactful that even more than a decade removed from it, the play earned annual “on this day” posts from the SEC Network accounts on social media.
13 years ago today…
Patrick Willis laid the BOOM ? pic.twitter.com/3NwDQazfiq
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) November 19, 2018
14 years ago today …
Patrick Willis did THAT ? pic.twitter.com/JgQWhFpAZQ
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) November 19, 2019
15 years ago today …
Patrick Willis laid the ???? ? pic.twitter.com/hYcBPk9sLN
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) November 19, 2020
Seventeen years later, Willis’ face still lights up when he’s asked about pile-driving Justin Vincent into the earth. Seven years after retiring from the NFL, he can still describe in great detail what led to the hit that put an exclamation point on his legacy as one of the all-time SEC greats.
So how did Willis pull off that hit? And why is it one of the most iconic defensive plays of the 21st century?
He can explain.
To understand the buildup that led to that play, Willis actually went all the way back to 6th grade. That’s when he first began watching NFL Films, which was a tradition he continued as a freshman at Ole Miss when he’d spend Sundays watching classic NFL games.
“I thought if you watched it on TV and then you go out in a game that it’d automatically happen for you like that,” Willis told SDS, “but it never did.”
The other problem for the lightly-recruited, wrestling and rugby-loving underclassman was playing time. While he arrived at Ole Miss as the Mr. Football winner as a star out of Bruceton Central High School in West Tennessee, Willis was relegated to special teams duties as a true freshman and he was a rotational player as a sophomore under David Cutcliffe.
But when Cutcliffe was replaced by USC assistant Ed Orgeron after the 2004 season, everything changed. Orgeron told Willis that he couldn’t believe he wasn’t a starter in his first 2 years at Ole Miss and that he could’ve been starting for his 2004 USC team, which had just won a national title. Whether it was just Orgeron’s way of trying to get Willis to stay at Ole Miss — he said he never seriously considered transferring because the program believed in him when in-state Tennessee didn’t — or he actually meant that, the new coach doubled down on his belief in the promising middle linebacker.
“Beginning of that year, Coach Orgeron says, ‘I want you to be the general of my defense.’ And when he said that to me, it was the first time that I felt like someone gave me the reins,” Willis said.
After some initial nerves, the switch flipped. “P-Willy,” as Orgeron called him, got what he had been waiting for. “The time is now,” Willis realized.
Fast forward to Nov. 19, 2005. No. 4 LSU traveled to take on Ole Miss. At the end of the first quarter of a 2-0 game, LSU drove into the Ole Miss red zone. The Tigers faced 3rd-and-1 after consecutive runs wherein Willis helped make the stop on Vincent, who was in after LSU starter Joseph Addai got banged up with a leg injury. Willis, as the general of the Ole Miss defense, made the play call, but quickly saw after breaking the huddle that there was a miscommunication.
“I could’ve swore I called the strength to one side,” Willis said, “but when I looked at the line, I saw 2 of our linemen, and I’m like, ‘Oh s—.’”
So Willis, who called out the strong side was to the right as the ball was being snapped, decided that it didn’t matter who was at fault. All he could do was try to make a play … and pray that Orgeron didn’t have a tongue-lashing waiting for him.
“One thing I learned is just get low and go hell-bent for election. It just so happened that maybe it was a little bit of luck and effort,” Willis said. “It was just like, ‘Oh s—, man. I gotta make this right. If they score, it’s gonna be on me.’ I’m gonna come off to the sidelines, and (Orgeron) is gonna be like, ‘Patrick! Watchu doin’?! What’s going on?!’ I was just like, ‘I don’t want to hear it, man.’”
Needless to say, Willis made it right.
With LSU lined up in its goal-line package operating out of the I-formation, Willis diagnosed the obvious run play to Vincent and proceeded to shed the block attempt from LSU’s All-SEC guard, Will Arnold. That set Willis up for a 1-on-1 with the LSU tailback. With his eyes up and his knee nearly touching the turf, Willis got low on Vincent, who appeared to be leaning forward in an attempt to pick up the yard to gain. That’s what allowed Willis to get leverage and hoist Vincent into the air while he rotated his hips in 1 simultaneous motion. “I was like, ‘I’m fittin’ to bury you through the ground, man,’” Willis said. That NFL Films-type moment he had been waiting for since 6th grade? Check that off the football bucket list.
All went according to plan. That is, until Willis realized that a post-tackle somersault was his only way out of some potential pain to a sensitive area.
“I was just gonna thud (Vincent) into the ground like a dent into the ground,” Willis said. “But I felt his foot going down in my crotch and it was just one of those things where you go with the motion.”
If anything, though, Willis’ improvised somersault only added to the magnitude of the play. With several Ole Miss teammates immediately surrounding him, it actually prompted a rare burst of emotion from the normally reserved linebacker.
“You just get up and it was like, ‘Woah,’ Willis said. “Everybody is going crazy for you and I’m like, ‘I think I did something.’”
Yep. Willis did indeed do something. He did something so significant that it overshadowed the fact that LSU actually picked up the first down on that play and it capped off the drive with a touchdown en route to a 40-7 win to keep its national title hopes alive.
That play, which may or may not have been flagged for unnecessary roughness in today’s college football world, set the wheels in motion for Willis to become everything and more that Orgeron could’ve hoped for. The rest was history.
Fast forward again. This time, to Dec. 8, 2021.
Willis made the trip to Las Vegas to watch former 49ers teammate and LSU great Glenn Dorsey get inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Who else was there? Dorsey’s LSU teammate Vincent, of course. Willis hadn’t seen him in a long time, but that didn’t stop the two from striking up a conversation. Yes, the tackle was discussed. Obviously.
“(Vincent) was like, ‘Man, they still talk about it to this day,’” Willis said.
All Willis could offer up to Vincent was a shrug and a confession.
“I wish I could say I knew it was gonna be perfect like that,” he said. “I was just trying to make what was wrong right.”