The 1978 Cotton Bowl was the lynchpin to a dramatic turn of events that saw the polls turned upside down on January 2, as Notre Dame stunned top-ranked Texas and ended up vaulting from #5 all the way to a national championship by night’s end.
The regular season of 1977 was the third year for Notre Dame head coach Dan Devine and he was feeling the pressure, as the first two seasons had not produced a major bowl berth. Devine would in fact give serious thought to resigning throughout the year.
If your job is going to be on the line there are worse quarterbacks to have than Joe Montana, and that’s who Devine relied on. The junior QB had an All-American target in tight end Ken McAfee, who finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting. Jerome Heavens ran for a nearly 1,000 yards, and the defense was led by Ross Browner, the end who had won the Outland Trophy in 1976 and made All-American all again this season.
The Irish opened the season ranked third in the nation and they opened by going on the road todefending nationalchampion Pitt and winning 19-9. That’s not as impressive as it might look on first glance though—Pitt had already lost its Heisman Trophy runner, Tony Dorsett, to the NFL and its head coach, Johnny Majors, to Tennessee. Early in this game they lost quarterback Matt Cavanaugh to a broken wrist and in handing ND seven turnovers, all but gifted the Irish this win.
Notre Dame’s flaws were quickly laid bare in a 20-13 loss at Ole Miss the following week that dropped them to #11. After three straight wins, including one over a pretty good Michigan State team, Notre Dame was still on #11 and hosted fifth-ranked USC.
It would prove to be the defining game of the Devine era. To the surprise of the players, green jerseys were in their locker room. The green created an eruption of emotion on the team and then with the crowd. Montana threw a pair of touchdowns to McAfee and ran for two more. The final was 49-19, Notre Dame was up to #5 in the polls and their season was back on track.
The Irish closed out the season with five straight wins, including a tough 21-17 win at eight-win Clemson. Notre Dame was still at #5 when they got the invitation to go to Dallas for New Year’s.
Texas faced uncharacteristically low expectations when the 1977 season began. Legendary head coach Darrell Royal had retired, and the program was coming off a .500 season. They had not reached a major bowl game since 1973 and were clearly losing ground to archrival Oklahoma, who had won a pair of recent national titles.
Fred Akers was hired to replace Royal and changed the offense from the wishbone to a single-back I-formation. It proved to be a boon for Earl Campbell. The senior running back had struggled to fulfill his immense potential as the fullback in the option. As the single back in the I, Campbell ran for over 1,700 yards, won the Heisman Trophy and became one of the truly great running backs of all time.
Texas had another big award-winner on defense, as defensive tackle Brad Shearer won the Outland Trophy, meaning the ’78 Cotton Bowl would feature each of the last two Outland winners in Shearer and Browner. Russell Erxleben was an All-American punter and also one of the best kickers in the country.
It was the running game, defense and kicking game for Texas, which is a good thing, because they weren’t going to beat anyone throwing the football. Randy McEachern opened the season as the third-stringer and threw only 89 passes for the entire season.
The Longhorns opened the season unranked, but in their first three games, they scored 184 points in blasting bad opponents and quickly vaulted to #8. It was time for their annual battle with Oklahoma, who was undefeated and ranked #2.
Texas’ starting quarterback at the time was Mark McBath. Seven plays into the game he was injured and lost for the season. The backup was Jon Aune. Nine plays later he was injured and lost for the season. McEachern was up. He played well enough to win, which is to say he gave the ball to Campbell.
Earl ran for 124 yards against a great defense, and his 24-yard touchdown run broke a 3-3 tie and was the key play of the game. The second-biggest play came from Shearer. Texas held a 13-6 lead, but OU reached the five-yard line with four minutes left. On 4th-and-1, Shearer stuffed Sooner quarterback Thomas Lott.
Texas moved to #2 in the country, behind only Michigan. The Longhorns had no time to worry about the polls because eighth-ranked Arkansas, their prime competition for the championship of the old Southwest Conference—and the automatic bid to the Cotton Bowl—were up next.
Erxleben nailed field goals from 58 & 52 yards. His counterpart, Steve Little, who would get the nod for All-American, hit a 67-yarder for Arkansas and the Razorbacks eventually led 9-6. But Campbell was too much. He ran for 188 yards, and his running helped set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Ham Jones with four minutes left. Jones was one of three brothers on the Texas team who went by the nicknames of Ham, Lam and Jam.
One week later, Michigan lost and Texas moved to the top of the polls. They won their final six games without incident, including over good teams in Texas Tech and Texas A&M. The Longhorns were the odds-on favorite to wrap up a national championship in Dallas on January 2.
It was set to be a great holiday weekend in the Lone Star State, The Dallas Cowboys had won the NFC Championship on New Year’s Day Sunday. Now Texas had to follow suit. But no one, not even the biggest Notre Dame optimist, could have predicted what would happen next.
Texas had a nightmarish game, turning the ball over six times, with almost all the damage coming in the second quarter. Heavens and Vagas Ferguson combined for a huge day for Notre Dame, going over 200 yards rushing. The score was 28-10 by halftime and shockingly ended 38-10.
The game was the first step to chaos in the national title picture. No one was left undefeated, though Oklahoma would have easily been anointed if they had won the Orange Bowl. But the Sooners were blown out by Arkansas. Michigan, ranked #4, lost the Rose Bowl. Of the favorites, only third-ranked Alabama held serve, hammering Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl.
It was either Notre Dame or Alabama for the national championship. The Irish, on the strength of blowing out the consensus #1 team, shot past the Crimson Tide and were voted national champs.