We're dredging up the kind of history no one wants to remember. We owe it you, our valued readers, to give a thorough and complete accounting of such history, the good, the bad, and most certainly the ugly. Welcome to our new series, Bad Beats, the epic beatdowns in the history of Texas College football. Relax, everyone gets a turn.
As we hit the home stretch of Bad Beats, we've seen the gammot of awful losses for our Roundup squads. Blowout losses, heartbreakers, even the unbelievable fumble on the last play when you should've taken a knee loss. This week it's SMU's turn to remember the bad stuff. The really bad stuff.
I Love it when a plan comes together
Ron Meyer's SMU rebuild was starting to bear fruit. After early stumbles against Baylor and Houston in back to back weeks, the Mustangs got hot. They upset #2 Texas in Austin and a week later blanked Texas A&M 27-0. SMU's eight wins were the most since Hayden Fry's 1968 Bluebonnet team.
The Pony Express backfield were pups. Eric Dickerson was a sophomore and teamed with junior Craig James. The spark that started the engine, little Lance McIlhenny, was a true freshman.
Meyer's grand scheme to take the SWC by storm was coming together. After four sub-.500 seasons, the Mustangs had the talent to beat anyone in the league. Perhaps enough talent to compete beyond that. SMU finished second in the conference, ahead of Arkansas, Texas, and defending champion Houston.
After a decisive victory over Arkansas to end the season, the Mustangs accepted a bid to the Holiday Bowl. There are worse places to spend December than sunny San Diego.
Third Times a Charm
Meanwhile, BYU had seen just about enough of the Holiday Bowl. The Cougars played in the inaugural game in 1978 but lost to Navy. A year later BYU entered the Holiday Bowl undefeated and ranked ninth in the AP Poll. The Cougars met Indiana in a back and forth Holiday Bowl showdown.
Down by one, Marc Wilson led his offense down the field looking for the winning score. He positioned the Cougars for a field goal and an undefeated season. Brent Johnson lined up the game-winner at the seventeen. With the game and an undefeated season on the line, Johnson shanked the kick and BYU left Jack Murphy Stadium with a blemish on their record and a chip on their shoulder.
To open the 1980 season the hangover lingered, and New Mexico used four field goals to cement an upset win in the opener. Facing a season-wrecking referendum just a game into their 1980 campaign, BYU did what it tended to do under LaVell Edwards, they fought back.
With Jim McMahon at quarterback, the Cougars became unbeatable. Again. McMahon set an NCAA record for most passing yards in a season, total offense, and touchdown passes. BYU's offense led the nation in scoring, and the Cougars ran the table. By the time the 1980 regular season wrapped, McMahon set 27 NCAA and fifteen WAC records.
What waited, again, was a trip to San Diego. The Cougars won 23 of their last 25 games, but their failures at the Holiday Bowl were still fresh in mind.
22 Point Lead
If styles make fights, then the 1980 Holiday Bowl was set to be a classic. SMU's original ground and pound option attack vs. Edwards air it out style. SMU's defense gave up just 13 points a game, but they also hadn't seen a team so proficient at throwing the ball around.
For his part, Edwards said SMU was the most talented team his squad had run into since the 1976 Oklahoma team. Meyer knew that McMahon was bordering on unstoppable, "you don't stop him, you hope to confuse him on one or two plays out of the 70 he's got the ball."
For twelve minutes, the confusion was real. The Mustangs held BYU without a first down or a pass completion for a dozen minutes to start the game.
After Dickerson scored to culminate a four play, 52-yard drive to start the game and James went 45 yards on a fake punt to go up 14-0, the Mustangs were on their way. Did we mention Craig James also punted? A safety and field goal later and the Ponies led 19-0 with four minutes to play in the first quarter.
McMahon didn't set all those records against air, though WAC defenses were comparable, and the Cougars finally got out of the gates with a 64-yard touchdown throw. SMU answered with a Craig James touchdown catch and a field goal to lead by 22 just inside the 2nd quarter. BYU added a late punt return for a touchdown, but by halftime, SMU made a statement with a 29-13 halftime lead.
Whatever halftime adjustments BYU made, they didn't work, at least initially. SMU took the second half kickoff and marched 75 yards in twelve plays to go up 35-13. The high-water mark for the Pony's lead in the game.
SMU rushing attack decimated BYU's defense and SMU's defense succeeded in keeping McMahon and his offense from taking over the game.
Midway through the third, McMahon found tight end Clay Brown in the back for a touchdown to pull the Cougars to within 16 points. Again, SMU answered, this time with another field goal. If you could criticize SMU's offense or laud BYU's porous defense, it would be for the simple fact that SMU kept kicking field goals instead of getting into the end zone. Three times the Mustangs broke into BYU's 30-yard line and left with three points.
McMahon's offense, meanwhile, swung for the fences. For two and a half quarters, the Cougars swung and missed.
The "Save the Game" Play
The near-sellout crowd had long since thinned to half capacity and shrinking. The Mustangs started playing backup defenders.
BYU scored to draw within 38-25 but a James 42 yard touchdown run put the Mustangs back up by 20. From that point forward two things happened, 1) BYU's defense suddenly became stingy and 2) Jim McMahon happened.
McMahon made up for lost time, throwing for 250 yards in the fourth quarter and picking SMU apart. But with four minutes left, BYU had little to show for it. McMahon hit Matt Braga for a touchdown. It seemed like an oh by the way touchdown.
BYU executed an onside kick, barely. The cover team almost overran the ball before somehow digging it out of the pile at midfield. On third and one from the SMU 41, McMahon dropped back, and SMU flushed him to his left where he spotted Bill Davis streaking down the left sideline. McMahon dropped it in the bucket, and the Cougars had a first and goal at the one-foot line. They scored a play later and the lead shrunk to six.
BYU again attempted an onside kick, this time SMU recovered it at the BYU 47. The Mustangs needed on first down to salt the game away. Facing a third and eight, SMU didn't have the passing acumen to convert, instead of pitching to Dickerson who was caught after a minimal game.
SMU took a delay of game with 18 seconds left, punting from the BYU 47, Bill Schefflin came clean from the right side of the formation and blocked the punt giving BYU the ball at the 42 of SMU with under 20 seconds to play. Two incompletions later, the Cougars had three seconds left to work with.
Due to what we assume are BYU's religious proclivities, the Cougars didn't have a "Hail Mary" play. Oh no, Joseph Smith wouldn't have that. Instead, they had a play with the less catchy name "Save the Game." The Cougars never used it in a game and used in practice only to break up the monotony by having players practice catch tipped passes.
The play called for a three-man route with the two receivers streaking down the hash marks and looking for a tip. The tight end, in this case, Clay Brown would run to the center of the end zone and try to create havoc and either knock the ball into the air or get an interference call.
Against SMU, even though the play called for the backs to stay in and block, Eric Lane, a BYU running back, took flight downfield at the snap. When asked about his improvisation, Lane said, "I wasn't going to miss all the excitement in the end zone."
Brown was at the center of the excitement, surrounded by three Ponies, he somehow jumped up and grabbed the ball out of the grasp of SMU defenders Dick Blaylock and Wes Hopkins. Brown secured it and hit the ground, even though a scrum ensued, the referees made the call, Touchdown BYU.
The Save, the Game Play, tied the game. An untimed down later, BYU notched the extra point, and the Cougars secured the greatest come from behind victory in their history.
While BYU players celebrated and contemplated where they were going to spend their next mission trip, SMU's shell-shocked team quietly walked off the field, through the end zone where their dreams became a nightmare and into a somber locker room.
Ron Meyer, not typically a religious man, wondered aloud if miracles should be reserved for something more important than a football game. Not on that night coach.