Notre Dame was the defending national champion coming into the 1978 college football season. Houston was only two years removed from a major bowl appearance of their own, but continued to be a mostly unheralded program. These two teams marched a path to a memorable January 1 battle at the 1979 Cotton Bowl.
Joe Montana was in his senior as the Fighting Irish quarterback, and he threw for over 2,000 yards, even with the graduation of All-American tight end Ken McAfee. The offensive line was anchored by All-American center Dave Huffman, and behind it, Vagas Ferguson ran for over 1,100 yards and Jerome Heavens added 721 more.
The defense coped with the loss of Outland Trophy winner Ross Browner, but still had All-American linebacker Bob Golic. Expectations were appropriately high in South Bend with a preseason #5 ranking.
Houston entered the Southwest Conference in 1976 and immediately made their presence felt to traditional powers Texas and Arkansas. The Cougars got the Cotton Bowl bid that year and beat Maryland, but after slipping to 6-5 in 1977, Houston was still seen as well behind Texas and Arkansas. The Cougars were unranked to start the season.
In September, thoughts of being in Dallas on January 1 seemed utopian in both South Bend and Houston. Notre Dame dropped its opener at home to Missouri, getting shut out in the process, in a 3-0 game. The Irish then hosted Michigan. The two schools renewed their rivalry in 1978 and this year marked the beginning of a long September tradition. It didn’t begin well for Notre Dame in a 28-14 loss that sent them plummeting from the land of the ranked.
Houston opened the season at Memphis, a team that would win only four games, but one of them came at the Cougars’ expense 17-3. Houston began to bounce back quickly. They had a potent running game with two 1,000-yard rushers, Emmett King and Randy Love, while wide receiver Willis Adams was one of the better deep threats in the SWC. David Hodge, an All-American linebacker anchored the defense.
The Cougars beat a pretty good Utah team and then nipped 10th-ranked Florida State, just starting to become a good program under Bobby Bowden. When Houston edged lowly Baylor to open SWC play it wasn’t impressive, but it was finally enough to get them in the polls, at #17.
After Notre Dame’s 0-2 start, they played a sequence of three straight games against good teams that stood to make or break them. The Irish started by escaping nine-win Purdue with a 10-6 win. Notre Dame then went to Michigan State, a team that had the Big Ten’s best receiver in Kirk Gibson and would have gone to the Rose Bowl this year if not for being on probation. The Irish jumped out to a 22-6 lead with the help of a defensive touchdown and won 29-25.
Notre Dame finished the triumvirate with a 26-17 win over ninth-ranked Pitt. Montana, staring at a 17-7 deficit after three quarters, completing seven straight passes and leading the comeback for the home crowd. By the end of this stretch, ND was ranked #20.
Houston faced a difficult challenge in navigating the SWC. They caught everyone’s attention with a 33-0 rout of sixth-ranked Texas A&M, starting the Aggies plunging to a four-loss season. After a win over SMU, the Cougars hosted Arkansas on October 28. After trailing 9-7 at the half, Houston took over the second half and won 20-9
There was no letdown for head coach Bill Yeoman’s team, as they blasted lowly TCU 63-6, moved into the Top 10 and were set to go to Austin and face sixth-ranked Texas. First place was on the line, neither team having lost a conference game.
After a scoreless first half, Houston was able to get its running game going and a touchdown from King capped a 57-yard drive. A third quarter field goal gave the Cougars a 10-0 cushion and they hung on a 10-7 win. They were improbably in complete control of the conference race, needing one win in their final two games to reach the Cotton Bowl.
Notre Dame meanwhile rolled through Air Force, Miami, a pretty good Navy team, mediocre Tennessee and #20 Georgia Tech to rise to #8 in the polls. The Irish weren’t going to win the national title, but they had a lot of momentum going to play their season finale at USC.
On November 25, both ND and Houston had their hearts broken, at least temporarily. The Cougars lost to Texas Tech 22-21. Even though Texas inexplicably lost to Baylor, Texas Tech still had a path to Dallas in the event of a four-way tie that would include Arkansas. Houston couldn’t celebrate yet.
Notre Dame fell behind USC 24-6, when Montana came through with a comeback that put the Irish up 25-24. When Trojan quarterback Paul McDonald fumbled in the closing minute, it appeared the game was over. Only the Pac-10 officiating crew ruled that McDonald’s arm was going forward, that it was not a fumble, but an incomplete pass. The Trojans took the reprieve and won a last-play field goal. The Irish had three losses, but still had the Cotton invite in hand.
Houston beat Rice 49-25 on December 2 to clinch not only their Cotton Bowl bid, but an outright SWC crown. They were ranked #9. With wins over Texas & Arkansas already in hand, a bowl victory over Notre Dame would eliminate the respect problem.
The Cougars looked well on their way to doing just that when they collected seven turnovers, including three interceptions of Montana and built up a 34-12 lead. The Irish quarterback, playing with the flu on what turned out to be a cold day with gusting wind in Dallas, went to the locker room and ate chicken soup to try and regain his strength. He returned midway through the fourth quarter of what it appeared to be a lost cause.
A blocked punt by ND and two-point conversion cut the lead to 34-20. Montana threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Heavens and it was 34-28. Notre Dame got the ball back one more time and drove inside the 10-yard line with six seconds left.
Montana looked for leading receiver Kris Haines in the right corner of the end zone, but the pass fell incomplete. Two seconds left. Montana went back to the same play. This time it was a touchdown and Notre Dame had a stunning 35-34.
The Irish finished in the Top 10. The Cougars were crushed, but they would be back. Yeoman had two more Cotton Bowl trips left in his career, including one that would result in a victory over Nebraska one year later.