Indeed, in a game that saw the two Cougar teams combine for 74 points and 788 yards of offense, one late fourth quarter play determined the outcome of the game as much as any others that foggy San Diego day. A play that fell just inches away from the grasp of the Pullman Cougars, sealing BYU's 38-36 victory over Ol' Wazzu.
The near miss took place as the game clock wound down to 2:17 and BYU, up by just two, was faced with a third-down-and-one situation on its own 29. BYU quarterback Jim McMahon fumbled the snap from center and just as WSU tackle Mike Walker (now Wazzu's defensive line coach) reached for the ball, McMahon somehow found the pigskin's handle and ran it seven yards for a game-saving first down.
But that play was far from being McMahon's lone heroic feat of the day. The senior QB connected on 27 of his 43 pass attempts for 342 yards. Three of those completions went for touchdowns and none of his attempts were intercepted.
But it was the BYU receivers who left the biggest impression on WSU strong safety Joe Taylor.
"What I remember most about McMahon is that he had great receivers," Taylor told Cougfan.com this week. "We were all over them and they kept managing to make these amazing catches."
Taylor left a lasting impression on BYU, as well. The New Jersey native was in on 11 tackles, including a drive-stopping hunt down of a screen pass that sent the Provo Cougars back 8 yards. He also blocked a punt.
"That was fun, I had a lot of opportunities to hit a couple of folks," Taylor recalled. "I loved hitting."
DISASTOROUS FIRST HALF
It's unlikely the Pullman Cougs were thinking football was a game of inches after their poor first half performance. More like a game of miles.
BYU stormed to a 24-7 first half lead and things didn't look to get any better for WSU early on in the second half, as Tom Holmoe (who would later coach Cal for a few hapless seasons) intercepted a Clete Casper pass and returned it 35 yards for a touchdown.
WSU's lone score in the first 30-minutes came in the second quarter on a two-yard plunge by backup quarterback Ricky Turner. The touchdown was set up by Taylor, who moments earlier had burst through the BYU line and blocked a punt deep in enemy territory.
Yet even down by 24, WSU refused to fold tents.
"We were well coached and had a good game plan," Gary Patrick, the former WSU guard, recently told Cougfan.com. "So the feeling among the offensive line at that time in the game was ‘hey, let's get together and execute, so we can get back in this game.'"
TURNER TAKES OVER
And execute they did, thanks in large part to the running skills of Turner.
WSU coach Jim Walden was so anxious to get Turner out of high school that he left a party late at night to fly down to Compton, Calif., still in his tuxedo, to sign him. It became evident why during that second-half to the 52,000 spectators on hand and those watching on ESPN.
The sophomore led WSU to three unanswered third quarter touchdowns—an 18-yard run by Don LaBomme, a 5-yard run by Robert Williams, and his own highlight film 13-yard keeper.
The WSU defense got in on the act, as well, holding McMahon and company scoreless for the entire third quarter. Suddenly, the BYU "blowout" was a three-point game.
"We came out like deer in headlights in the first half, we were embarrassed," WSU All-American safety Paul Sorensen told Cougfan.com this week. "But then pride kicked in and we made a game of it."
The two teams would exchange scores in the fourth quarter, with Wazzu narrowing the gap to two when Turner ran for a two-point conversion following Mike Martin's five-yard run with a handful of minutes remaining.
Turner finished the day with 92 yards rushing on just 12 carries.
Casper tossed a successful two-point conversion pass to All-American tight end Pat Beach following LaBomme's touchdown. But another two-point pass attempt following Williams's TD run fell short. A fateful miss, indeed, that proved to be the point difference in the contest.
FIRST BOWL IN 51 YEARS
The storyline of the game, other than the flamboyant McMahon, was the end of the WSU bowl drought. Their Holiday Bowl bid marked their first post-season appearance since the 1931 Rose Bowl.
"There was a real sense of history in progress," Patrick said. "We had accomplished something at WSU that no other team had done in 50 years."
When WSU lines up against Texas at the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 30, it will be the seventh bowl appearance for the Cougs since that groundbreaking day in 1981.
"Now look at the program," he said. "Bowls have become an expectation."
"That team proved you could win at WSU."
McMahon lived up to his reputation the week leading up to the contest, consistently wearing his trademark shades indoors and out, treating the affair with a "ho-hum" attitude and refusing to acknowledge Washington State players.
"Personally, I think McMahon is a jerk," WSU defensive tackle Ken Collins said after the game. "They talk about the 55 NCAA records he set, but I think he set 56 because he's the biggest jerk in the history of college football. He's got no class. I think he was nothing but a big butt all week long."
The cocky QB let WSU defenders know his feelings on the first play of the game.
"He flipped us off!" Sorensen recalls. "We spent the rest of the game trying to put him in traction—and we came close to doing just that."
But the animosity wasn't confined to McMahon. An obvious disdain by each team for their opponent was apparent on both sidelines.
"There was no love lost between these two teams tonight," Sorensen said afterward. "There were a lot of cheap shots on both sides."
And WSU fans in attendance—accustomed to the relative pleasantness of opposing Pac-10 fans (especially in those pre-smack days)—reported encountering Brigham Young followers with some less than welcoming words and a shoulder-chip the size of the Pac-10 conference.
"We were surprised at how inhospitable many of the BYU fans acted," Margaret Ann Fallquist , a WSU student at the time, said. "All throughout the game they screamed ‘see you in another 50 years,' among other unprintable things, at us. That amazing third quarter quieted them a bit, but not much."
DROUGHT SHOULDN'T HAVE BEEN
While the 51-year "bowl drought" angle makes for a compelling story, it is also one of the most misleading stats in Cougar annals. Over the course of those five decades, at least 15 Cougar squads were bowl eligible by today's standards.
Of course, bowl games were far less prominent in the days before corporate sponsorships ruled the gridiron, but there were other factors that kept some of these Washington State teams home for the holidays.
One such team, the Jim "Suds" Sutherland coached '58 Cougs, went 7-3 and was invited to play in the Sugar Bowl. Under Pacific Coast Conference rules, acceptance hinged on unanimous consent from fellow PCC schools. Spiteful UCLA and USC voted no. Not wanting to rock the conference boat, WSC President E. Clement French sheepishly told Sugar Bowl officials thanks, but no thanks.
And then there were the 1972 Cougars. Coach Jim Sweeney led this remarkable group of overachievers to a 7-4 record and a No. 17 and 19 ranking in the UPI and AP polls, respectively. Yet, they sat home because the Pac-8 had an asinine rule limiting bowl participation to the conference champion alone.
The rosters of these two Cougar teams is notable for the high number of players who progressed to the next level of their sport, such as McMahon and WSU's Keith Millard, the 1989 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
But it should also be trivially noted that each squad contained a future Super Bowl MVP on their roster. Mark Rypien, who earned the honor as Washington Redskins QB in 1991, was a red shirt freshman on the WSU roster. McMahon's back up, Steve Young, won the award as the San Francisco signal-caller in 1991.
Rypien did not participate, but Young took part in a memorable play in the first quarter. BYU players "snuck" Young onto the field, where he lined up at tailback, took a pitch from McMahon and completed a 26-yard strike to a wide-open receiver. BYU scored on the flustered WSU defenders the very next play.
MORE HOLIDAYS PAST
This will also be WSU head coach Bill Doba's second trip to the Holiday Bowl. The 2003 Pac-10 Coach of the Year was an assistant at Indiana when they defeated BYU in the 1979 classic, 38-37.
Texas and San Diego are old friends, as well. The Longhorns hold a 1-1 Holiday Bowl record. They fell to the Oregon Ducks, 35-30, in 2000, but defeated the Washington Huskies, 47-43, in 2001.
Holiday Bowl flashback
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