SAN DIEGO By now we should all come to expect wild and crazy times in the Holiday Bowl. It is apparent that for sheer thrills and chills, this annual affair has a patent. Never mind that the major TV networks thumb their noses at it. If this were a sitcom, it would be on prime time.
Surely, the Holiday Bowl directors meet somewhere over lunch in nearby Tijuana each year and plan this game down to the finest detail, just as they do the rest of the bowl activities. They plan the fourth quarter like they plan the fireworks and marching bands at halftime. The script always goes something like this: one team takes a big lead and then puts up only mild resistance while the other team rallies. Then with two minutes to go it's anybody's ball game.
On a foggy Friday night in San Diego, it was BYU's turn to lead. In 1978, the Cougars took a 16-3 halftime lead and lost 23-16 to Navy. In 1979, the Cougars owned a 21-17 lead before losing 36-37 to Indiana on a missed field goal in the waning seconds of the game. Last year they had to score 20 points in the final four minutes to win 46-45 over Southern Methodist. This year the Cougars took a 31-7 lead over Washington State, then stood by and watched as their lead dwindled. Final score: BYU 38, WSU 36.
"There are 10 other bowl games out there that would pay a million bucks for a game as good as one of our four Holiday Bowls," said BYU coach LaVell Edwards, and it would be hard to argue otherwise.
Washington State came roaring back behind the play of sophomore quarterback Ricky Tuner. He relieved starter Clete Casper and led his team to three unanswered touchdowns in the third quarter to cut BYU's lead to 31-28.
But BYU quarterback Jim McMahon came alive with this clutch passing show, Brandon Flint came up with a big sack and Scott Pettis and Waymon Hamilton broke away on runs of 29 and 30 yards to put the game away.
As the game ended, so did the illustrious career of McMahon, who completed 27 of 43 passes for 342 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. For the second straight year he won the Offensive Player of the game trophy. McMahon went out just the way he wanted: a winner and, at that, a winner over a Pac-10 Conference team. He had spent the week at the Hilton Hotel on Mission Bay anxiously awaiting the game. Said Mike Mees, McMahon's roommate, "I took hundreds of telephone messages for him this week, mostly from reporters. When he wasn't answering the phone, practicing or talking to agents, he slept. He was anxious for this game. He wanted to prove that BYU could beat a Pac-10 team."
Said McMahon, "It would have been tough looking back on a losing note. It's nice to go out this way."
BYU coaches skipped the usual pep talk before this year's game. Instead, they played a tape of the original radio broadcast from the last two minutes of last year's Holiday Bowl thriller. Then they handed Mel Farr, BYU's 5-foot equipment manager, a telephone book. Farr ripped it in half just as he did before the team's last two meetings with Utah and last year's Holiday Bowl. This year he did it in record time: a minute and 20 seconds. The Cougars were rolling before the game had begun, but promptly sputtered once they got onto the field.
Early in the first quarter, and again in the third quarter, the Cougars, particularly McMahon, were struggling. On both occasions McMahon found his tight end, Gordon Hudson to start things up. After the first two series of the game, McMahon had completed just two of six passes for one yard.
None of his passes were even close to the target. He threw one pass in the vicinity of Danny Plater, and the ball fluttered in the air as if it were made of paper.
"For some reason I was edgy," said McMahon. "I started thinking that all of the sudden it (his career) was ending." To compound McMahon's problems, a fog was beginning to roll into Jack Murphy Stadium, a fog that has been known to grow so thick that the field is not visible from the stands.
Edwards was understandably worried. He ambled over to offensive coordinator Ted Tollner and asked, "What's wrong with Jim?"
"Nothing's wrong, he's OK," Tollner replied, after which he unveiled a trick play he had been saving for the occasion.
He put two quarterbacks in the game. Reserve Steve Young, who played two games this season while McMahon was sidelined with an injury, lined up at tailback, took a pitch from McMahon and threw a pass to Gordon Hudson.
Fearing WSU's defense might realize something was up when they spotted Young, the Cougars did their best to hide him as they trotted onto the field to take possession of the ball.
"We all huddled around Steve trying to hide him," said McMahon. "It worked. They didn't suspect a thing."
This despite the fact that 52,000 fans sitting in the stands seemed to know what was going on as Young took his place in the backfield. An audible murmur fell over the crowd. Young unleashed a perfect strike to Hudson for a 26-yard gain to WSU's 36-yard line.
"I don't think they noticed Young was back there," said Hudson. "They just thought he was another running back. Nobody covered me. We needed a play like that to get us untracked."
Indeed, the Cougars and McMahon were never the same the remainder of the first half. On the following play, McMahon lofted a high spiral to Danny Plater at the three for a touchdown.
In the second quarter, Mike O'Neil intercepted a Casper pass and McMahon and Hudson took over. McMahon passed 25 yards to Hudson, then found him again sandwiched between two defenders in the end zone for a touchdown.
WSU struck back when Joe Taylor blocked a Mees punt that set up a two-yard TD run by Turner and cut BYU's lead to 14-7. But McMahon was slicking and he passed BYU upfield for a 20-yard Kurt Gunther field goal and a one-yard TD run by Waymon Hamilton for a 24-7 halftime lead. BYU cornerback Tom Holmoe upped ti to 31-7 on the third play of the third quarter when he picked off a Casper pass and sprinted 35 yards for a touchdown.
But McMahon was cold again and Turner was hot. Turner, who coach Jim Walden had wanted so badly out of high school that he left a party at 10 p.m. and flew to Compton, Calif., to sign him, still wearing a tuxedo, rushed 93 yards on 12 carries and led WSU to three quick scores a 10-yard run by Don LaBomme, a five-yarder by Robert Williams and a 13-yarder by Turner himself to cut BYU's lead to 31-28. With the third quarter nearing an end, the scene was set for another wild finish.
Following a near interception and a broken play, McMahon finally got rolling again. Faced with a third-and-12 situation at his own 18, McMahon completed passes of 45 and 26 yards to Hudson and then hit Pettis with an 11-yard scoring strike. Turner again led WSU upfield for a score a one-yard run by Mike Martin, then ran for a two-point conversion cutting BYU's lead to two.
WSU had one more chance to pull it out, but Flint threw Casper for a 10-yard loss to kill the drive. "That meant the game right there," said Edwards.
It was left for McMahon and Co. to kill the clock. The crucial play occurred when McMahon, faced with third and one at WSU's 29, turned his own fumble into a five-yard gain. "That's wasn't the original play," said McMahon. "I was planning to give it back to Hamilton and let him get hit."
And so, BYU survived another Holiday Bowl, and did it in keeping with the game's tradition at the same time. As BYU assistant coach Dick Felt said as he ran off the field, "We just won't do these things the easy way."