Kevin Stoker and Anne Thornton
Jan. 8, 1981 — LaVell Edwards called it “the game that caught the imagination of the whole country.” SMU Coach Ron Meyers called it “good, solid football,” but most BYU fans and players will remember the 1980 Holiday Bowl as just “incredible.”
It hadn’t been rehearsed all season; some of the new receivers didn’t even know what the play was.
But the “save the game” play, which had never been used before, worked to perfection as Clay Brown looked up and saw the accurate “prayer” thrown by quarterback Jim McMahon. Brown shared the catch with a Southern Methodist defender.
“We both had the ball,” the senior tight end said. “He wasn’t about to give it up, but neither was I.”
Holiday Bowl III will be remembered as a “never give up” situation that ended in success.
“A lot of coaches here have talked to me about the game,” said Edwards, who is attending the NCAA Coaches Convention in Miami, Fla. “They have told me it is unreal, and that it is a great tribute to players not giving up.
“Some call it one of the best comebacks they’ve ever heard about.”
No Longer Stunned
Edwards said after three weeks he is no longer stunned, but now has a “satisfactory feeling because we capped the season with a bowl victory.”
And that is a much-sought-for prize for Edwards and company, who could not claim the bowl victory four attempts before their clash with SMU. That was on the mind of Edwards up to the final seconds.
“After we tied it at 45-45, I turned to (assistant coach) Dick Felt, and I said, ‘Well, at least we didn’t lose.'”
But with Kurk Gunter’s kick through the uprights came BYU’s first bowl victory.
“It was nice to finally win a bowl game,” said Edwards. “That stigma had got to be a pain in the neck for us.”
Unfortunately, some fans had given up hope and stopped watching or listening before the turn-around finale. Many of the seats in San Diego Stadium had been vacated before the startling comeback.
“My family had 50-yard line seats,” said Nancy Gibson, a senior in recreational therapy from Long Beach, Calif. “But we left early to avoid the rush. My dad said it was hopeless for BYU.”
Carl Ericson, a senior, majoring in English, listened to the game on the radio in his Boise, Idaho, home. But he, like many other listeners, turned the radio off when the Cougars were down 45-25.
“I didn’t think they had a chance, and it made me sick to listen to them lose,” he said.
“Then the next morning’s paper read, ‘BYU wins Holiday Bowl.’ I thought it was a joke,” he said.
The Last Minutes
Only the last 3:58 minutes need close scrutiny.
Down 45-25, the Cougars played as if there was no question that they could still win.
BYU began on its own 28-yard line and drove 72 yards in seven plays. McMahon threw a 25-yard pass to Brown and then hit Braga in the end zone for the score. Once again, the two-point conversion failed.
Johnson’s second onside kick was a success, however, and Todd Shell recovered for the Cougars at the 50.
A 40-yard completion to Bill Davis, a one-yard run by Phillips and a successful McMahon to Phillips pass for the two-point conversion made the score 45-39 with 1:58 left in the game.
There were 18 seconds left on the clock when Bill Schoepfin blocked Kaife’s punt to set up brown’s “incredible” catch.
Some call it a miracle. Craig James, the SMU running back who ate up the BYU defense for 225 yards, said it was.
In a Texas paper, James said he “didn’t want to believe it. I kept praying on the sidelines that there’d be a way for it (Brown’s catch) to fall out.
“The Lord only knows why he let this happen,” James said.
But SMU coach Ron Meyers said it wasn’t a miracle. His now famous evaluation says the comeback “wasn’t a miracle, just solid football. I’d like to think miracles are used on things more important that football.”
Meyers also said BYU is capable of beating anyone in the country because of their ability to throw the football.
Solemn and Tense
The pressure to win the big game left the Cougars very solemn and tense at the first of the game. “The players were trying so hard. They just got uptight,” said Edwards, who also said the home practices were not what he had hoped.
“In a way, I think we were in awe of them when we went into the game,” said wide receiver Dan Plater. “There was no messing around before this Holiday Bowl game.”
The offense could not muster even one third-down conversion in the first quarter, and the defense could not stop those speedy SMU backs — James and Eric Dickerson.
“Their backs just ran up and down the field like we weren’t even there. But our defense is not really that bad; they just overpowered us,” Edwards said.
And up and down the field they went. James and Dickerson together compiled 335 yards rushing and four touchdowns. Kicker Eddie Garcia also mounted up the points with three field goals and four PAT’s.
Brown, the nation’s top punter a year ago, averaged only 30.5 yards on his first two punts while watching the ball sail over his head for a safety the third time he went back.
While BYU was getting untracked, SMU, with excellent field position, covered 52 yards on four running plays for the first touchdown.
On their next possession, the Mustangs were apparently stalled as James was stopped short on third-and-three. But James, on the fake punt, galloped 45 yards to the end zone. Garcia kicked his second PAT and the score was 14-0 with only five minutes elapsed in the first quarter.
Soon after, SMU rolled again, Garcia kicked a 42-yard field goal, and for the first time since the New Mexico game, BYU was on the short end of the score.
“It’s hard to play your style of game when you’re down 19-0,” Plater said. “It’s hard to keep your cool.”
BYU’s first score came from a one-handed catch by Brown, who then raced 64 yards for the touchdown.
SMU’s third touchdown was set up after McMahon threw an interception. The Mustangs, with the help of two 15-yard penalties against the Cougars, drove down the BYU four-yard line, where James took it in. Garcia made it 29-7 with the PAT and a 44-yard field goal on the Mustangs’ next possession.
Sikahema Returns Punt
Freshmen Vai Sikahema brought the BYU faithful to their feet as he took Eric Kaife’s punt 84 yards for the score. The two-point conversion was unsuccessful and the Cougars went to the locker room down 29-13 at half-time.
Running the option to perfection, SMU took the second half kickoff and grounded out 75 yards in 12 plays to make the score 35-13.
But BYU came right back as McMahon completed five straight passes, ran for 20 yards and hit Brown in the end zone for a 13-yard score.
The Mustangs ran the clock down five minutes before Garcia kicked his third field goal of the day.
On the Cougars’ first possession of the fourth quarter, McMahon completed 11 of 13 passes and Phillips ran around the left end from one yard out to close the gap, 38-25. The two-point conversion continued to elude BYU as McMahon, who threw 255 yards in the final quarter for a 446-yard total, overthrowing Braga in the end zone.