Flashback: Holiday Bowl IV (1981)

When the Brigham Young Cougars take the field Saturday, December 18, 2010, in the New Mexico Bowl it will be exactly 29 years since BYU squared off against the Washington State Cougars in Holiday Bowl IV. For the second year in a row, the Holiday Bowl featured two nationally ranked teams. BYU (10-2) was number 14 and Washington State (8-2-1) was number 20.

BYU used some trickery in the early going. Back up quarterback Steve Young lined up as a halfback and took a pitch from Jim McMahon. Young raced right, pulled up and found Gordon Hudson down field for a 26 yard pick up. In all, Hudson had 7 receptions for 126 yards, and one touchdown. It looked like Young would get a lot more action in mop up duty.

After cruising to a 24-7 halftime lead, Tom Holmoe ran a third quarter interception back 35 yards to increase the lead to 31-7. By the end of the quarter, however, it appeared fate would play a cruel trick on BYU. Just one year before, in the same bowl, BYU overcame a huge second half deficit to beat SMU. In 1981, the tables were turned. Washington State closed the gap to 31-28 going into the fourth quarter.

The good news for BYU was that the same Jim McMahon who orchestrated the miracle comeback the year before was still dressed in blue. It was his last career game, and McMahon was not going to go out a loser. He directed BYU 82 yards down the field capped by an 11-yard TD pass to Scott Pettis. The lead was now 10, 38-28. It was enough points to win the game, but BYU would need one more big play from McMahon to seal the win.

Washington State scored again and used a two-point conversion to close the gap to 2. It was now late enough in the game that BYU didn’t have to score; they could simply run the clock out. Washington State wasn’t going to make it easy. They forced BYU into a 4th and 3 situation. Convert the first down, and the game is over. Fail to convert and we are all biting our nails until the final play. McMahon takes the snap, and as he pulls away from the center he fumbles the ball. The ball is bouncing on the turf. A Washington State player is in position to pounce on the ball. McMahon, however, uses his underrated quickness to pick up the ball and run around the left side of the line for a first down.

It was only fitting that Jimmy Mac, the most decorated player in BYU football history, made a clutch play to win his final game. By picking up the first down with his feet, as opposed to his arm, it was a subtle preview for BYU fans of what was to come the next year when Steve Young would take over the reigns.

With the 38-36 victory, BYU won its second consecutive bowl game, which is still a school record. BYU can match this record Saturday against UTEP.

More flashbacks can be found on the Flashbacks page.