Jan. 1, 1979
DALLAS — Notre Dame utilized a miracle rally beginning midway through the fourth period to shock Houston 35-34 and capture the 43rd and coldest Cotton Bowl. It featured a comeback that many longtime observers called the greatest in Irish football history.
Quarterback Joe Montana, who missed most of the third quarter because of below-normal body temperature, captained an Irish rescue mission which saw the gold and green put 23 points on the board in the final seven minutes and 37 seconds, erasing a 34-12 Cougar lead in the process.
What happened in the last 7:37 was mind-boggling. For starters, the tide turned when freshman reserve fullback Tony Belden blocked a Jay Wyatt punt and classmate Steve Cichy picked it up in a crowd and rambled 33 yards for an Irish score. Notre Dame, electing to go for two, narrowed the deficit to 34-20 when Montana connected with tailback Vagas Ferguson in the end zone.
After his team had forced another Wyatt punt, Montana shifted into overdrive when the Irish regained possession at their own 39-yard line with 5:40 remaining on the clock.
On three straight plays the senior signal caller connected with freshman tight end Dean Masztak, fullback Jerome Heavens and flanker Pete Holohan for respective gains of 17, 30 and 11 (the last one on pass interference) yards. Two plays later Montana swept left end for two yards and a touchdown. Two points were once again a must for the Irish, who brought the score to 34-28 with a Montana-to-Haines completion.
The once dumfounded Notre Dame legions suddenly had reason to cheer. Their Irish were rolling, or so it seemed, until all momentum seemed gone with 2:05 left in the game. It was then when Montana fumbled after a 16-yard run to the Houston 20 and Cougar Tommy Ebner recovered.
The Irish defense stiffened, and with a fourth-and-one from the Cougar 29 and 35 seconds left, Yeoman overruled a possible punt to go for the first down that would seal a win for the Southwest Conference champions. But Notre Dame held on a great stop by freshman Joe Gramke and the Irish took over with 28 ticks of the clock left, just 29 yards short of paydirt.
Montana, who needed a dose of chicken soup to help erase his hypothermic condition, started the last-ditch Irish effort by running for 11 yards and then throwing to Kris Haines for a gain of 10. On the next play Montana, the same Montana who had earlier thrown four interceptions, wasted little time getting rid of the ball, tossing it quickly to the right corner of the end zone and in the direction of Haines. The pass was incomplete, but Montana’s quickness in releasing stopped the clock with two seconds remaining and gave the Irish one last chance.
Montana, calling for the same play twice in a row, then proceeded to hit Hines with the tying touchdown pass.
Joe Unis, a Dallas native, came on to kick the extra point. An illegal procedure penalty nullified the winning point, so Unis had to do it all over. He did, and the miracle was history.
Most Valuable Player
Joe Montana, Quarterback