March, 20 2023
The BYU Cougars of the late 1970s and early 1980s were the gridiron equivalent of plum pudding: everyone enjoyed their annual national appearance around Christmas, but by New Year’s Day they were forgotten.
Featuring a high-powered offense led in succession by Hall of Fame quarterbacks Gifford Nielsen, Marc Wilson, Jim McMahon and Steve Young, the Cougars dominated the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) and represented the Mountain states in the brand-new Holiday Bowl. The San Diego-based bowl was started in 1978 and matched the winner of the WAC against an at-large invitee. BYU lost tightly contested and entertaining games to Navy (23-16) and Indiana (38-37) in the first two editions.
The Cougars rarely played on national broadcasts during the regular season, and any stories pertaining to their games often ended up in small agate type in most sports sections east of the Mississippi River. Even the Holiday Bowl lacked national attention. The game was broadcast by the Mizlou Network, a small, syndicated sports network that sold the game to mostly local independent television stations. To many fans these dramatic losses featuring lots of offense, little defense, and rabbit ears to get the UHF signal were all they knew of BYU football.
That changed immeasurably on December 19, 1980.
Southern Methodist was a very attractive draw for the three-year old bowl. Featuring the “Pony Express” backfield of Eric Dickerson and Craig James, the Mustangs were in their first bowl game since 1968 and their regular season dismantling of second-ranked Texas opened eyes around the nation.
BYU countered with McMahon, a two-time All-America and winner of the Davey O’Brien Award as the nation’s top quarterback. Prognosticators figured this game between the 11-1 Cougars and 8-3 Mustangs would be another high-scoring affair as few believed BYU could stop SMU’s running game or that SMU could stop McMahon.
For the first three quarters those predictions were half right.
James ran for 221 yards and Dickerson 110 as SMU raced out to a 38-19 lead entering the fourth quarter. McMahon had close to 300 yards passing in the game at this point, but the Mustangs were able to contain him around the goal line. When James peeled off a 43-yard touchdown run following a BYU score, the Mustangs seemed comfortably ahead 45-25 with 3:50 remaining. While some coaches may have considered giving backup quarterback Steve Young some garbage time work, Edwards chose to let McMahon keep slinging the ball around.
Still five years away from becoming the “Punky QB” of the 1985 Chicago Bears Super Bowl champions, McMahon quickly drove the Cougars down field and connected on a 15-yard touchdown pass to his roommate Matt Braga. The two-point conversion attempt failed, and BYU trailed 45-31 with 2:33 remaining.
Kicker Lee Johnson executed the onside attempt perfectly and BYU recovered at the 50. Within 30 seconds McMahon had the Cougars at the goal line and tailback Scott Phillips dove over to cut the lead to 45-37. McMahon then hit Phillips for a successful two-point conversion and the score was 45-39 with 1:56 remaining.
Johnson’s next attempt at the onside kick was unsuccessful, and SMU took over at the BYU 47. With only one timeout remaining, BYU could not let SMU get a first down. For the first time all night, the defense stopped Dickerson and James, forcing a punt with 13 seconds to play. Cougar DB Bill Schoepflin blocked the punt and BYU recovered at the Mustang 41.
McMahon’s first two pass attempts were incomplete, stopping the clock each time. Now with just three seconds remaining there was no choice but to throw up a Hail Mary. The BYU quarterback took the shotgun snap and dropped all the way back to the BYU 45, allowing his receivers time to reach the end zone. McMahon was unpressured because SMU sent more defenders than normal to the end zone to counter BYU’s receivers. He released the final pass of the game into the San Diego night.
The ball came down in the middle of the end zone where tight end Clay Brown was surrounded by two defenders. The former basketball forward “boxed out” the defenders and outjumped them for the ball, landing in the end zone with four SMU players piling on top of him. The official ran to the pile and quickly raised his arms up, signaling touchdown. Legendary broadcaster Ray Scott, calling the game for Mizlou, yelled “Touchdown!” while the cameras panned the BYU sideline, revealing an entire bench racing onto the field in joy.
The winning extra point by Curt Gunther was almost anticlimactic. The Cougars won a game known to this day in Provo as the “Miracle Bowl,” 46-45. Interestingly, the MVP voting concluded with five minutes to play, and Craig James was named the winner. McMahon was quickly added as “Co-MVP.”
This game marked a turning point in BYU’s national perception. They won the WAC four more times from 1981-1984, winning dramatic Holiday Bowls against Washington State in 1982 (38-36) and Missouri in 1983 (21-17). Their high-flying reputation played a role in ESPN featuring the Cougars in the cable network’s first ever live broadcast of a college football game on September 1, 1984. Naturally, the Cougars’ 20-14 win over the third-ranked Pitt Panthers involved a dramatic comeback. This was the first win of a 13-0 season that culminated in BYU’s only national championship. They clinched their title in the 1984 Holiday Bowl, defeating Michigan 24-17 by scoring two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, capping yet another late rally.
The BYU team became a staple of ESPN late-night telecasts for the next 20 years and developed a cult following nationally. And it all can be traced to that December night in 1980 when the Cougars provided die-hard fans with anything but a Silent Night.