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On This Date in Sports December 19, 1980: The Miracle Bowl

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BYU uses a stunning rally to beat SMU 46-45 in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego. Down 45-25, the Cougars score 21 points in the final 2:33. The game ends with Jim McMahon tossing up a 41-yard Hail Mary pass, which Clay Brown caught battling four SMU defenders to tie the game. BYU would get the win on the ensuing PAT by Kurt Gunther. McMahon was voted the game's MVP with 446 yards with four touchdowns. 

As the 1980s began, the football program at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, was on the rise thanks to coach LaVell Edwards. At the time, they were the class of the WAC (Western Athletic Conference). The Cougars had won the conference four times in a six-year period. However, they had yet to win a bowl game. In the 1979 Holiday Bowl, BYU, who had posted an 11-0 record during the season, was beaten by Indiana 38-37 on Tim Wilbur's 62-yard punt return. The game ended when Indiana blocked Brent Johnson's 27-yard field goal attempt. Led by quarterback Jim McMahon, BYU overcame a season-opening loss to New Mexico to post a record of 10-1 to claim another WAC Championship. 

Led by the backfield of Craig James and Eric Dickerson, the program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas was rejuvenated in 1980. The Mustangs had their first winning season in six years and made their first bowl game since 1968 by posting a record of 8-3 for coach Ron Meyer. 

The Holiday Bowl was in its third season, with BYU representing the WAC again. The Cougars lost the inaugural Holiday Bowl against Navy 23-16 in 1978 and had a heartbreaking loss against Lee Corso's Indiana team in 1979. BYU, holding a #12 ranking, had never won a bowl game in four attempts. SMU ranked #19 had a record of 2-4-1 in seven previous bowl appearances; their last bowl game was a victory over Oklahoma in the 1968 Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl. 

The Mustangs dominated the first quarter, jumping out to a 19-0 lead. Eric Dickerson had a 15-yard run for a touchdown to start the game. Craig James followed with a 45-yard touchdown run off a fake punt. SMU continued to roll with a safety on a bad snap from center and a 42-yard field goal from Eddie Garcia to make the score 19-0. BYU got on the scoreboard late in the first quarter as Jim McMahon connected with Clay Brown on a 64-yard touchdown pass. 

SMU continued the attack in the second quarter as Craig James had a three-yard touchdown run with Garcia hitting a 44-yard field goal to extend their lead to 29-7. Late in the second quarter, BYU got another score as Vai Sikahema had an 83-yard punt return for a touchdown with Kurt Gunther missing the PAT. 

SMU continued their dominating after holding a 29-13 lead at the half, as Eric Dickerson scored from the one to make it 36-13, with an unsuccessful two-point attempt. Clay Brown had his second touchdown reception of the game from the 13-yard line, but after a missed two-point try and a third field goal by Garcia, SMU held a commanding 38-19 lead entering the fourth quarter.

BYU got off to a good start in the fourth quarter as Scott Phillips scored from the one. However, after a 42-yard gallop by Craig James, SMU seemed to have the game on ice, leading 45-25. James had a monster game for the Mustangs, rushing for 225 yards with two touchdowns. Jim McMahon was angry on the sidelines as Cougar fans were exiting the stadium. However, down 45-25 with 2:33, it would take a miracle for BYU to get the win. 

The Cougars' comeback began with Jim McMahon connecting with Matt Braga from the 15-yard line; again, the two-point try failed as SMU led 45-31. After recovering an on-side-kick, BYU got down the field and made it a one-score game with a second touchdown by Scott Philips, who later caught the two-point try to cut the deficit to 45-39. The BYU defense needed a big stop to get the ball back. After SMU failed to get a first down, they needed a punt to pin the Cougars deep. Instead, Bill Schoepflin blocked Eric Kaifes punt; this gave BYU the ball at the 41-yard line with 13 seconds later. 

The Cougars had the but did not have much time to get the ball into the end zone. Jim McMahon's first two pass attempts fell incomplete. It was now time for one last prayer for BYU. Jim McMahon loaded it up and aimed for the end zone, with Clay Brown, who was covered by four defenders, the target. Brown somehow was able to jump and grab the ball for the touchdown touching off a mad celebration for BYU. For Clay Brown, it was his third touchdown of the game, as he accounted for 155 yards of McMahon's 446 passing yards. The touchdown tied the game with Kurt Gunther need the PAT to win the game 46-45.