Upstarts crashed the 1977 Cotton Bowl. The Houston Cougars were in the first year of the old Southwest Conference, which had the bowl’s automatic bid. Rather than pay deference to legendary coaches in Texas’ Darrell Royal and Arkansas’ Frank Broyles, both in their final year, Houston quickly won the league. Their opponent was Maryland, who rose up to enjoy an undefeated season. Here’s how they arrived in Dallas following the 1976 college football season.
Bill Yeoman had taken over the Houston program in 1962, and after nine straight winning seasons, the Cougars fell to 2-8 in 1975. Nothing suggested a turnaround was in the offing. They were unranked to start the year. An opening day road win over what would prove to be a pretty good Baylor team was promising, but the Cougars promptly lost 49-14 at Florida on September 18.
September 25 was what gave Houston fans real hope that this year would be different. They hosted ninth-ranked Texas A&M. The Aggies had a terrific running back in George Woodward, who would average 144 yards-per-game this season. Houston shut him down.
The Cougar defensive front was led by Wilson Whitley, who won the Lombardi Award and would go #8 overall in the coming spring’s NFL draft. Houston won the game 21-10, then blew out West Texas A&M two weeks later to move into the Top 20.
Houston thumped SMU, but then dropped a tough 14-7 decision at home to Broyles and Arkansas. The loss sent the Cougars back out of the polls. They began another climb and this time they didn’t stop.
The Cougar running game was led by Alois Blackwell, who rushed 934 yards and they had a ballhawking defensive back in Anthony Francis, who intercepted ten passes. Houston blasted winless TCU to move into the polls and then opened everyone’s eyes when they went into Austin and shut out Texas 30-0. It’s true that was not a vintage Longhorn team for Royals’ final year—they went 5-5-1—but beating Texas in any era is significant and certainly a road shutout in the mid-1970s.
It set up Houston’s biggest game, at unbeaten and fifth-ranked Texas Tech on November 20. The winner would hold the inside track to the Cotton Bowl. Cougar quarterback Danny Davis was often erratic—even by the standards of the era, his 47.8% completion rate was low, but he led an offense that put up 27 points in Lubbock. Houston led 27-19 late in the game and an interception killed a final Red Raider drive.
The victory moved Houston to #7 in the polls and they took care of three-win Rice a week later to sew up the Cotton Bowl spot. A non-conference home win over Miami, 21-16, had the Cougars ranked #6 when New Year’s Day arrived.
Maryland was a program that head coach Jerry Claiborne had moving up, with a 25-10-1 record in the coach’s first three years in College Park. All three years had resulted in bowl appearances, but the Terps had yet to play on the New Year’s stage. They opened the 1976 season ranked #12.
The Terrapins opened with seven games that were relatively easy. Villanova, then playing Division I football, was the only one of the seven to finish with a winning record, and Maryland won all seven games. They elevated from #12 to #5 in the process.
Maryland, like Houston, was led by a great defensive tackle. Joe Campbell was an All-American and would be chosen one spot ahead of Whitley in the coming NFL draft. The Terps also had two excellent guards in Ed Fulton and Tom Shick, and tackle Dave Conrad rounded out a very good offensive line. The line cleared the way for fullback Tim Wilson, running back Alvin Maddox, and running quarterback Mark Manges.
The biggest game of the year wasn’t an ACC opponent—it was a home date with Kentucky, the place Claiborne had gone to school and would eventually return to coach in 1982. The Wildcats would finish the season 7-4, and had beaten ranked teams in Penn State and LSU. Kentucky came to College Park on October 30 and Maryland answered the bell with a 24-14 win.
Claiborne’s team followed that up with a win over eight-win Cincinnati, and then shut out Clemson and Virginia. It put a lock on not just an ACC title and not just a Cotton Bowl bid, but an undefeated season.
Maryland was ranked #4, but had no real chance at the national championship. Another undefeated upstart out of the East, the Pitt Panthers, were ranked #1 and in the Sugar Bowl. If Pitt lost, the polls would surely crown the winner of Michigan-USC in the Rose Bowl, the two teams immediately behind Pitt in the rankings. Neither were undefeated, but the Terps simply lacked the respect and the weakness of the ACC at this time didn’t help.
There might not have been a national title to settle in Dallas, but the winner of this game would end up in the Top 5 of the final polls, a much better neighborhood than either team was accustomed to.
The weather was ice cold in Dallas, and it was Houston who came out and struck very quickly. After a touchdown drive, the Cougars blocked a punt to set up another quick score. Then they recovered a fumble and scored again. It was 21-0 and all three touchdowns had come within a 5 ½ minute span.
But Maryland stormed back. Manges ran for a touchdown in the second quarter. Houston answered that one, but missed the extra point. In the third quarter, Manges both ran and threw for a touchdown and now it was 27-21. Houston was backed up on their own goal line in the fourth quarter facing third and long. Davis made one of the biggest throws of the season, converting the first down. Later in the drive, on 4th-and-1, Yeoman went for it, and it kept a drive for a clinching field goal alive.
Houston won 30-21, keyed by Blackwell going for two touchdowns and over 160 yards against a defense that hadn’t allowed a rushing touchdown for 22 quarters coming into the game. The Cougars got into the Top 5, finishing fourth in the final poll.