Dave Huffman, Notre Dame's All-America center and team philosopher, was musing about the Fighting Irish mystique on the eve of the Cotton Bowl. "It's there even when you don't want to believe it," he said. "There comes a day when skeptics turn around and, bang, there it is. Right in front of them. And they know it."
Nobody knows better now than the once skeptical Houston Cougars, who were beaten 35-34 in a wonderfully wacky game with a typically implausible Notre Dame ending, the winning point coming after time had expired. Houston Coach Bill Yeoman had tried to convince his team late last week that any such mystique was "garbage." Somewhere, Rockne and Gipp are pounding each other on the back.
It was a contest played during the tail end of Dallas' most severe storm in 30 years. Officials said game conditions—temperatures in the low 20s, winds gusting to 30 mph, frozen stadium chairs—were by far the worst in the Cotton Bowl's 43-year history. Only 32,500 spectators showed up, a credit to their nose for barn burners.
But for a good part of the game the only thing worse than the weather was the way the Irish played. Star Linebacker Bob Golic got hurt. So did Punter Joe Restic. Quarterback Joe Montana was shivering and fighting the flu and throwing interceptions—four. With 1:50 to play and the Irish somehow having rallied to cut a 34-12 deficit to 34-28, he took off on a run, holding the ball out like a peace offering. Houston Linebacker David Hodge knocked it loose and a teammate, Tommy Ebner, recovered it on the Cougar 20. Now, for sure, Notre Dame was finished. Houston Quarterback Danny Davis, who had danced more than a few fancy steps during the afternoon in celebration of his achievements, danced another few. Montana, seemingly whipped, slumped sadly off the field to a sideline jammed with worried teammates and concerned coaches.
January 8, 1979
But Houston was unable to run out the clock. With 46 seconds to go, the Cougars lined up in punt formation. Notre Dame jumped offside. With only a yard to go now for a first down, the Cougars eschewed the punt. Emmett King tried the left side but was stopped. Four plays later—the ball in the air and the gun sounding—an eight-yard Montana to Kris Haines pass into the corner was good. Score: 34-34. Before the game Montana had said, "We have to take our time if things don't go well. Houston can only play on emotion for so long." Chances are he didn't mean cutting it quite that fine, but with Notre Dame, who knows?
So Joe Unis kicks the winning point. Hold it. The Irish foul up again; they are penalized for illegal procedure. Now it is a 25-yard kick for the point. "Every kicker fantasizes about winning games like this," Unis says later. Fantasy becomes reality. Unis' foot swings and the kick is true.
Back up a bit and consider the larger fantasy. There are but 13 minutes, 36 seconds left to play; Hodge has just intercepted a Montana pass; Notre Dame trails by 22 points; Notre Dame cannot win. Reality: a punt blocked by Notre Dame's Tony Belden is caught in midair by freshman Steve Cichy and run back 33 yards for a touchdown with 7:37 to go. With 4:22 left, Montana runs two yards around left end for a touchdown. Then he throws a two-point conversion to Haines to make the score 34-28. Finally, Montana and Unis turn in their wow ending.
Danny Davis, who can do magical things with the football himself, had said in a happier moment, "The only time I panic is after a game is over. That's the time to panic, because there's nothing you can do." As night fell over Dallas, Davis must have been one agitated fellow.