Last minute heroics propel Irish to Cotton Bowl victory
By MIKE CONNOLLY
Associate Sports Editor
Editor's note: Notre Dame's journey to achieve designation as the 20th century's greates college football team is marked by 10 milestones, one in each decade since 1900. The Observer examines these moments in a 10-part series that will appear on Fridays.
From the come-from-behind victory over Ohio State in 1935 to the victory over USC two weeks ago, Notre Dame fans have come to expect last-minute heroics from their football team.
The greatest come-from-behind victory in Notre Dame history, however, was so improbable that even the most optimistic Irish fan could not have anticipated it. Trailing 34-12 with less than eight minutes remaining in the game, Joe Montana led the Irish to 23 unanswered points to rally Notre Dame to a 35-34 win over the Houston Cougars in the 1979 Cotton Bowl.
After the game, head coach Dan Devine called the victory "the greatest of all the comebacks I've been associated with."
While a 23 point come-from-behind victory alone is dramatic, the conditions in which Montana led his troops to victory made the win over the ninth-ranked Cougars even more incredible. A storm hit Dallas on Dec. 30 and coated the entire city in a thick covering of ice. Along with the ice that shut off power in most of the city came bitter winds and below freezing temperatures. At kickoff the wind chill was measured at -19 degrees.
Even Irish players seasoned to bitter South Bend winters were not prepared for the weather.
"I tell you, it was cold," Irish middle linebacker and tri-captain Bob Golic said after the game. "I've never played in anything as cold as that before."
The cold plunged Montana's body temperature well below normal, forcing him to miss most of the third quarter while Irish trainers desperately tried to warm him up with chicken soup in the locker room.
With their quarterback in the locker room, the Irish offense couldn't move the ball and the defense couldn't stop the Cougar attack. Led by two Danny Davis rushing touchdowns, the Cougars built a seemingly insurmountable 34-12 lead.
Even with Montana back in the fourth quarter, the Irish could not reach the end zone. With 7:39 remaining in the game, Notre Dame's confidence was low, according to Irish split end Kris Haines.
"There was a point in the game where I was starting to feel a little sorry for myself," Haines said after the game. "My leg was hurting some and I've got a terrible cold and felt like giving up."
Although their confidence was low, the Irish weren't giving up. Fullback Tony Welden blocked Houston's punt at the 33-yard line and Steve Cichy returned the ball for a touchdown to cut the lead to 16. On the ensuing two-point conversion, Montana hit tailback Vagas Fergusen and the Irish were within two touchdowns.
"That seemed to be the turning point of the game," Cichy said after the game. "We got momentum back and everything started clicking after that."
The defense forced Houston to punt on its next possession and Montana took over at his own 39-yard line with just 5:40 remaining in the game. Three passes moved the ball to the Cougar 3-yard line in less than one minute and a half. Two plays later Montana scampered two yards into the end zone to close the gap to just eight.
Devine again called for a two point conversion. Montana hit Haines and the Cougar lead was just six, 34-28.
Notre Dame got the ball back and marched right down the field toward a touchdown that would give it the lead. But then disaster struck.
Montana scrambled for 16 yards to move the Irish to the Cougar 20-yard line. At the end of the run, however, Montana fumbled and the ball was recovered by Houston's Tommy Ebner. It appeared that Montana's improbable comeback had come to an end, six points short of its goal.
But strong defense and a questionable call by Houston head coach Bill Yeoman gave Montana one more chance. The Irish defense forced a fourth-and-1 at the Cougar 29-yard line. Rather than punting the ball away and giving Montana one last chance, Yeoman elected to go for the first down. Joe Gramke and Mike Calhoun stopped Cougar tailback Emmet King for no gain at the Houston 29-yard line.
Yeoman defended his call after the game.
"It was my decision," he said. "I don't think anyone wanted to kick the ball away anyway."
With just 28 seconds left on the clock, Montana and the Irish offense stood just 29 yards from victory. Montana ran the ball for 11 yards on first down to pick up another first down at the 18-yard line. He then hit Haines for 10 more yards to move the ball to the eight.
With just a few seconds remaining on the clock, Montana dropped back and threw the ball toward Haines in the back of the end zone. The pass, however, fell incomplete and the Irish had just one more shot at the end zone with two seconds remaining on the clock.
With just one chance left, Montana called for the exact same play. This time Haines caught the ball and the game was tied at 34 and the clock read 0:00.
"It couldn't have been a more perfect pass," Haines said. "This is the greatest feeling in the world."
Joe Unis lined up for the most important extra point of the season and knocked the ball right through the uprights. An illegal procedure penalty, however, forced Unis to try the kick again from five yards further away. Unis had no problem from a slightly longer distance as he tacked on the final point in the dramatic 35-34 victory.
"I'll remember this game for the rest of my life," Haines said. "This team never quits."
All Sports Stories for Friday, October 29, 1999