Miracle Bowl Win Over SMU Has Lasting Legacy On BYU Football 40 Years Later

Dec 19, 2020, 2:34 AM

Jim McMahon - BYU Football...

BYU football quarterback Jim Mcmahon celebrates with his dad Jim Mcmahon Sr. at the Holiday bowl in 1980. (Deseret News Archives)

(Deseret News Archives)

PROVO, Utah – On December 19th, 1980, BYU football and the Holiday Bowl made their grand arrival on the national college football landscape. In a game that will forever be known by BYU fans as simply, the “Miracle Bowl.”

Just moments after that miraculous comeback at Jack Murphy Stadium, former BYU president and current member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Jeffrey R. Holland said, “This might be the greatest comeback in the history of college football.”

Forty years later, it’s hard to find another college football game that can top what BYU pulled off to win its first bowl game in program history. Taking down nationally-ranked SMU, the best team money could buy in the early 1980s with Craig James and Eric Dickerson in the backfield. Coming back from 20 down with four minutes remaining was truly a miracle.

Jim McMahon reflects on 40-year anniversary of 1980 Holiday Bowl

“I can’t believe it’s been 40 years. It’s flown by, but it was a special night,” said former BYU quarterback Jim McMahon to KSL Sports. “It was just nice to part of that team that finally got LaVell Edwards his first bowl win.”

When LaVell Edwards took the head coach position at BYU in 1972, he inherited a Cougar football program that had never been to a bowl game. In just his third year in 1974, he got BYU to a bowl game in the Fiesta Bowl. A game they lost to Oklahoma State.

The heartbreak continued in those early years for LaVell and BYU in bowl games. No heartbreak hurt more than in 1979 when an undefeated BYU team lost to Lee Corso’s Indiana Hoosiers 23-16 in the second edition of the Holiday Bowl.

Going into the matchup with SMU in 1980, BYU football in ’80 was 11-1 and No. 14 in the AP Top 20. It was only 20 teams, not 25 back then. SMU from the big bad Southwest Conference was 8-3 and No. 19 in the rankings. Despite having three losses to BYU’s one, no one gave the Cougars much of a shot against the Mustangs.

The naysayers of the Cougars were validated early on. SMU jumped out to a 29-7 lead with 6:42 remaining in the second quarter. But BYU got a little jolt of life from true freshman Vai Sikahmea who returned an 83-yard punt for a TD to cut the Cougar deficit down to 29-13 at the halftime break.

“I had a terrible first half. That’s the reason we were down by so many points,” said McMahon. “I just didn’t play the way I played all year long. Then I see this freshman kid just, you know, have the balls to pick that ball and run 90 yards; I said, ‘This kid ain’t giving up. I’m not giving up either.’ So that was my attitude for the rest of the game.”

The young Sikahema, who went on to be a BYU legend, wasn’t fazed by the nationally televised stage of a big college football bowl game.

“I had no pressure, had zero pressure for 18-year-old Vai Sikahema. You know why? Because my parents were in the stands, and my family was there, they were watching me play. They were in the stadium, got them free tickets. To me, it was like, this is all gravy. I don’t care if we get 100 to nothing, honestly. Because I’m here, and I’m playing,” said Sikahema.

The halftime locker room

“I wasn’t really surprised that we got behind. We knew what we were getting into,” said former BYU safety and current AD Tom Holmoe. “These are two NFL great backs, not just great college backs in Dickerson and James. So they jumped on us early. Being a defensive player in that game, it was disheartening to see that we could not slow them down … but we felt like we could have a shot.”

The third quarter saw SMU build its lead up to 19 points heading into the fourth quarter. A crowd of 50,214 that saw a large contingent of BYU fans in attendance started to head for the exits as it appeared the Cougars were going to come up short once again in a bowl game.

“The fact remains that if all the people that said they were at the game afterward were really there, there would have been 200,000 people at the game. But all of the stories today, it’s all urban legend, but if I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it 1,000 times. People that left the game and were driving home and turned around and came back. I don’t know if it just makes a good story 40 years later or if it really happened. But yeah, a lot of the Cougs cashed it in for sure.”

No time to quit

Even head coach LaVell Edwards was ready to check out and chalk up the 1980 Holiday Bowl as another defeat. With 8:39 left in the game, BYU facing a 4th & 1 down 38-19, Edwards sent out the punt unit. Boos reigned down in San Diego for the fans that were holding out. McMahon wasn’t thrilled with the decision either.

“You kick there, and you have no shot,” said McMahon. “We hadn’t really stopped them all night long. Eric Dickerson and Craig James both had big nights. So we were having a tough time stopping them. But I said, you know, if we kick now, we’ve got no shot. I said I’m not going out and giving up. I wouldn’t get off the field. I told the offense to huddle up, and we had to burn a timeout because we wouldn’t come off the field.

“I remember calmly explaining to the coaching staff what was going on. We kick now; we have no shot. At least give us a shot to do something. I remember LaVell and Doug Scovil looking at each other like they didn’t know what the hell to do. I said, ‘okay, we’ll take care of this.'”

McMahon called a play at the line of scrimmage and found a wide-open Clay Brown to keep the drive moving. BYU capped off that series with a Scott Phillips touchdown run after a long and hard-fought 17 play, 90-yard drive.

SMU, as they did all night, answered quickly, as Craig James popped off for a 42-yard touchdown to give the Ponies a 45-25 lead.

Time for BYU Football to make miracles happen

That’s when the miracle started to go into effect with 3:58 remaining in the game.

Perfection needed to happen for BYU to pull it out. For those of you who remember the old NCAA Football video game, it wasn’t easy to pull off this comeback in a video game. Imagine doing it against one of the best teams of the 1980s.

McMahon connected with Matt Braga on a 15-yard touchdown pass with 2:31 remaining to cut the SMU lead down to 14, 45-31.

BYU’s special teams completed a perfect onside kick to give McMahon and the offense another drive, starting at the 50-yard line. Three plays later, McMahon hit wide receiver Bill Davis down to the one-yard line to set up another Scott Phillips TD run. BYU then finally converted a two-point conversion after chasing a handful earlier in the game to put the score at 45-39 with 1:57 remaining.

Lee Johnson attempted another onside kick, but this time SMU was ready. Setting up the Ponies on BYU’s 47-yard line. Could the BYU defense that had allowed 393 rushing yards get a stop to give McMahon and the heralded Cougar passing attack one more shot?

Kyle Whittingham sacked SMU QB Lance McIlhenny to put the Mustangs behind the sticks. Then on a 3rd & 8 with 1:06 remaining, McIlhenny tossed to the long-striding Dickerson, who was stopped near the sideline by senior cornerback Bill Schoepfilin from Arvada, Colorado.

Schopfilin wasn’t done making plays. His final snap as a BYU Cougar, the 5-foot-10, 175-pound defensive back, blocked SMU’s punt to give McMahon one last shot from the SMU 41-yard line with 13 seconds left. Setting the stage for yet another dazzling finish in a Holiday Bowl involving BYU.

“On first down, I just threw it through the endzone. I had no business throwing that ball,” said McMahon when revisiting the final drive.

The final play: “Save the Game Pass”

Second down was ultimately going to be the final play of the game with three seconds remaining, and BYU’s dreams of getting that coveted bowl victory hung in the balance. Offensive coordinator Doug Scovil gave the play to wide receiver Dan Plater and said, “We’re gonna block both backs. Everybody run right to the goal line, all three receivers. Tight end and two receivers, throw it up.”

“The final play was a play that we practiced every week. We just called it “save the game pass.” That’s pretty much all it is, you know, you’re trying to save your ass; you’ve been down all night, and you’ve worked hard to get back in this position. I just said to my line, ‘give me a little extra time because it’s going to take these guys awhile to get down the field. One of you guys get in the end zone and catch this thing or tip it. But make sure you’re in the end zone.'”

McMahon dropped back a good 10 yards to let his receivers get down the field, and he found the outstretched hands of his All-American wide receiver/tight end Clay Brown for the game-tying score.

“The ball came down probably about halfway, five yards deep in the end zone, and Clay went up, and he was probably the guy that jumped the least amount off the ground but the only guy to touch that football. Then he goes, once I had my hands on it, at the bottom of that pile, they were ripping and grabbing and poking his eyes. He was not going to let that ball go. Then you know, Kurt Gunther came in and kicked the extra point, and we win.”

Since his storied career at BYU, McMahon has gone on to win a Super Bowl for the Chicago Bears. He’s been named to the College Football Hall of Fame, received his degree from BYU, and had his jersey retired at his alma mater.

That 1980 Holiday Bowl launched BYU into a national stage and was the groundwork for what would ultimately become the National Championship four years later.

The lasting legacy from that Miracle Bowl performance in San Diego will continue to carry on for years to come for both BYU and the star QB known as “Jimmy Mac.”

“It was great the way that game ended up, and it’s nice to still be talked about after 40 years.”

Mitch Harper is a BYU Insider for and host of the Cougar Tracks Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and Cougar Sports Saturday (Saturday from 12–3 p.m., KSL Newsradio). Follow him on Twitter: @Mitch_Harper and the KSL Sports app.

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Miracle Bowl Win Over SMU Has Lasting Legacy On BYU Football 40 Years Later