Editor's note: This is the fifth in an eight-part series celebrating the 25th anniversary of BYU's 1984 national college football championship.
PROVO — There are certainly more memorable touchdowns in BYU football history than the one Kelly Smith scored late in the 1984 Holiday Bowl.
But he can lay claim to the one that ultimately lifted the Cougars to the national championship.
His 13-yard TD catch from Robbie Bosco with 1:23 remaining beat Michigan and completed BYU's perfect 13-0 season.
Prior to that game-winning touchdown, the top-ranked Cougars and unranked Wolverines were tied, 17-17. After suffering through a game that saw the Cougars turn the ball over six times and have a field-goal attempt blocked, BYU had one last chance to redeem itself.
On third down, with the ball at the Michigan 13, the play call came into the huddle — "69 halfback option." The primary receiver was Smith, a running back from Beaver, who had caught nine passes already that night.
But on that play, Smith was double-teamed, and tight end David Mills, the second option, "got tackled," according to Smith.
"Robbie scrambled and we all went to different places. It was actually a broken play," says Smith, who teaches physical education at Dixie State College. "I went down the sidelines, and Bosco found me in the back of the end zone. I wasn't supposed to be there."
Bosco's pass to Smith staked the Cougars to a 24-17 lead, which ended up being the final score.
"I didn't really think much more about (the touchdown) until after it was over," Smith says. "Everybody was piling on me, fans were running out of the stands. There wasn't that much time left in the game, but it seemed like a normal catch in the game. It meant more after it was over."
Two weeks later, on Jan. 3, 1985, after the New Year's Day bowl games were completed, BYU was officially crowned national champions in the Associated Press and United Press International polls.
Four years B.C. (before championship), the Cougars earned their first bowl victory ever in the "Miracle Bowl" on Jim McMahon's famous, last-second touchdown pass to Clay Brown. Six years A.C. (after championship), the Cougars knocked off No. 1-ranked, defending national champion Miami in Provo.
But BYU has never had more at stake in a game than it did on Dec. 21, 1984, against Michigan.
The Holiday Bowl pitted the No. 1, 12-0 Cougars against a 6-5 Wolverine team. The Cougars' dream of winning a national championship hinged, in large part, on beating Michigan.
While all the pressure was on BYU, the Cougar players and coaches were focused.
"The team goal was to go undefeated. By doing that, we would give ourselves a chance to win the national championship," says wide receiver Glen Kozlowski. "We just wanted to win every game. That's all we did. We talked about a national championship. But it wasn't that we would win it, but that we would give ourselves a chance to win it if we went undefeated."
BYU wanted to play No. 2 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, but they were contractually obligated to play in the Holiday Bowl as the Western Athletic Conference champions.
A loss to Michigan would have not only ruined any shot at a national championship, but it would have justified the criticisms that the Cougars had absorbed from detractors around the country.
The Wolverines did everything they could to smash BYU's hopes of a national title.
In the first quarter, Bosco dropped back and completed a pass to Kozlowski. At the end of the play, Michigan's Mike Hammerstein unloaded on Bosco, injuring his left leg. An official whistled Hammerstein for a late-hit penalty and Bosco was removed from the game as trainers and doctors attended to his left knee and left ankle.
"I got hit down low," Bosco says. "My foot got stuck in the ground and (Hammerstein) rolled on it. He twisted it really bad. The most pain of the whole injury was my ankle."
"I remember that cheap shot from (Hammerstein)," said BYU offensive lineman Trevor Matich. "He hit Robbie and hurt his knee. The rest of that game, I played not just to win the game for the win and the championship, but to beat these suckers because at that moment, everything about Michigan football was that play. I was livid. Michigan football is honorable. That play was not honorable."
Backup quarterback Blaine Fowler replaced Bosco, who was taken to the locker room. As it turned out, Bosco had sustained a partial medial collateral tear in the knee, and a Grade 2 ankle sprain.
"I was thinking, 'I can't believe I went the whole season without being injured,' " Bosco said. " 'Now here's the biggest game of our careers, and I get injured.' "
As much as his leg hurt, not being able to play hurt even worse. Inside the locker room at Jack Murphy Stadium, Bosco could hear the muffled sounds of the crowd — and it was killing him.
"After I was checked, I asked the trainers, 'If I get hit on it again, is it a career-ending injury? Can I play on this?' " Bosco recalled. "They said I could. I said, 'Wrap it up and let's go!' They wrapped it up and I went out there. Warming up, I wasn't sure if I could do it or not."
He approached quarterbacks coach Mike Holmgren and told him he wanted back into the game.
"Are you sure?" Holmgren asked.
Bosco was sure, and he returned early in the second quarter. But because of his physical limitations, the Cougars decided to employ the shotgun formation, something they hadn't done before during that season.
Somehow, the Cougars made it work. A gimpy Bosco made plays when he needed to, completing 30-of-42 passes for 343 yards and two touchdowns. He also threw three interceptions.
"Never have I seen a more courageous performance by a kid," coach LaVell Edwards said of Bosco after the game. "He was in pain. But as long as he could stand up, he wanted to play."
While BYU rolled up 483 total yards compared to 202 for Michigan, the Cougars' many turnovers kept the game close. In fact, the Wolverines enjoyed a 17-10 advantage early in the fourth quarter.
That only set the stage for another vintage Holiday Bowl finish.
The Cougars scored two touchdowns in the final 11 minutes, starting with a leaping grab in the back of the end zone by Kozlowski, who soared over a Michigan defender to tie the game at 17.
"I still tease Robbie. I think he was really trying to throw the ball away," Kozlowski says. "I just thought I had a chance at it. So I jumped up and the (Michigan player) kind of pushed me up a little bit more because I jumped before him and got a little leverage on him. It lifted me up a little bit, and I caught the ball."
As it did all night (and all season) long, BYU's defense came up big again to give the offense the ball back at its own 17-yard line with 4:36 remaining. Then came the Cougars' final drive that was capped by Smith's game-winner.
BYU linebacker Marv Allen intercepted a Michigan pass with 44 seconds left to clinch the win. That was fitting, considering the key role BYU's defense played that night.
"We had a lot of great players on that team. We, as a defense, were underrated by other people all year," said linebacker Leon White, a San Diego native who went on to play several seasons in the NFL. "That was what was so exciting — to play such great defense in the national championship and keep our team in it.
"When Robbie went down, it was big for the defense to step up. Without the defense that year, we wouldn't have been able to do what we did. You're not supposed to win games when you turn the ball over six times. That tells you how well the defense played. I look back on that and say, 'Wow, how did we overcome six turnovers?' We created some turnovers of our own. We didn't quit."
For White, the triumph was especially sweet, to win that game in his hometown.
"That meant the world to me because all my friends, family, ex-teammates and coaches were all there," says White, who runs after-school programs for youths in San Diego. "It's a special feeling to be able to do that in your hometown, to bring a championship home."93 comments on this story
Though the Cougars would have to wait a couple of weeks to officially earn national championship honors from the AP and UPI voters, as far as they were concerned, the championship was already theirs.
Earlier that day, Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer had said BYU would deserve the national title if it beat Michigan.
"You're the greatest BYU team that's ever been," Edwards told his team after defeating the Wolverines. "I guess if Barry Switzer says we're No. 1, then we're No. 1."
FRIDAY: How Cougars head coach LaVell Edwards accomplished the next-to-impossible — guiding BYU to the national title.