Today, Lee Corso is nationally recognized for his work as an ESPN college football analyst. You could even argue he’s the face of the sport. At the 1979 Holiday Bowl he was just the mostly unknown, but witty head coach of Indiana looking to get a bowl victory over an undefeated BYU team. The Hoosiers and Cougars played a classic game down to the wire in San Diego. Here’s a look back on how they both got there…
Indiana had been on hard times since reaching the Rose Bowl in 1967 and then having a winning season in 1968. Corso took over in 1973 and started with three awful years. He followed it up with a 14-18-1 stretch from 1976-78. Indiana came into the 1979 college football season looking to finally grasp another bowl bid.
The team’s best player was tight end Bob Stephenson, whose 49 catches were second in the Big Ten. Tim Clifford was a respectable quarterback, with a 56% completion rate and 7.2 yards-per-attempt, each ranking him fourth among conference quarterbacks. The running game was split between Mike Harkrader and Lonnie Johnson, who combined for over 1,500 yards.
Indiana opened the season at Iowa. The Hawkeyes’ Dennis Mosely would end up winning the Big Ten rushing title and Iowa broke out to a 26-3 lead. A new era didn’t exactly look to be dawning. But the Hoosiers rallied. Clifford went 19/28 and his 316 passing yards set a new school record. He threw a 66-yard touchdown pass to Johnson with just under a minute left to complete a 30-26 comeback win.
IU came out of that win and blew out lowly Vanderbilt, then got an 18-10 win over mediocre Kentucky, both wins at home. A visit from a bad Colorado team brought disappointment—a 17-16 loss to end the non-conference schedule on a dour note.
A road trip to Wisconsin produced an ugly game, but it ended with a 3-0 win for the Hoosiers. But given the Badgers would only finish 4-7, there wasn’t a lot to be optimistic about—especially when eventual Big Ten champ Ohio State demolished Indiana 47-6 in Columbus the following week.
The Hoosiers got healthy with a 30-0 home win over a hideous Northwestern team. On the final weekend of October they went to 10th-ranked Michigan and played their best game of the year. Indiana was ready to get out of Ann Arbor with a 21-21 tie (overtime did not exist until 1996). Michigan had one final chance from close to midfield and they made it count, with a bomb to Anthony Carter that broke Hoosier hearts, 27-21.
There was still reason for IU to feel good about the way they had played and they hosted Minnesota a week alter. Gopher quarterback Mark Carlson had the highest completion percentage in the conference and finished second in total passing yards. But it was the Indiana offense that stole the show, rolling to a 42-24 win. The points kept coming in a 45-14 win at Illinois.
The rivalry game with Purdue for the Old Oaken Bucket, against the conference’s best quarterback in Mark Herrman, ended with a 37-21 loss at home, but Indiana had still won seven games and gotten Corso’s long-sought bowl invitation.
BYU head coach Lavell Edwards had his program on the rise. They had won at least nine games a year from 1976-78 and were hungry for some national recognition. Cougar quarterback Marc Wilson would finish third in the Heisman voting in 1979.
Wilson spread the ball around in a balanced passing offense that was state-of-the-art for its time. Running backs Eric Lane and Homer Jones were good pass-catchers out of the backfield. Tight end Clay Brown was an eventual second-round NFL draft pick. Wide receiver Lloyd Jones averaged over 22 yards-per-catch as the big-play threat in the offense. Receivers Dean Plater and Bill Davis rounded out an attack that produced six of the Western Athletic Conference’s ten most productive receivers.
BYU had an early opportunity for a non-conference statement, at 14th-ranked Texas A&M. It looked like a game where things would go off the rails, as Wilson underwent an appendectomy the week before the game. But the Cougars hung in there, with a blocked punt and goal-line stand keeping them game close.
Wilson got the ball late, down 17-10 and led a drive for a touchdown with 52 seconds left. Edwards called for the two-point conversion to go for the win and got it. BYU left College Station with a 17-17 win.
After a blowout win over Weber State, BYU began conference play and blasted UTEP 31-7, a win that got them into the national polls at #20. They buried Hawaii, Utah State and Wyoming in rapid succession, scoring a combined 140 points and shooting up to #11.
BYU closed October with a 59-7 win over New Mexico, then rolled past Colorado State and Long Beach State to move into the Top 10. The two best WAC opponents, Utah and San Diego State were still to come. Each could run the football, giving them the potential to keep the Cougar offense off the field. The Utes had a good 1-2 backfield punch with Tony Lindsey and Lewis Walker, while the Aztecs’ Tony Allen won the conference rushing title.
None of it matter. BYU shut out Utah 27-0 and then crushed San Diego State 63-14 to cap off their undefeated season. The WAC had a contractual arrangement for the Holiday Bowl, so San Diego was the Cougars were destined. They weren’t going to win the national championship, but they could cap off a perfect season.
There was bad blood between BYU and Indiana leading up to the December 21 game. BYU felt disrespected by the Big Ten. Indiana was motivated by reports that BYU was also disappointed they hadn’t drawn a more high-profile opponent.
Both offenses came out firing. BYU took a 7-0 lead, but Clifford responded with a 38-yard touchdown pass to Stephenson, and then a one-yard TD run for a 14-7 lead. A short touchdown run from Wilson tied the game 14-14 after the first quarter.
Clifford ran in for another touchdown from a yard out and IU led 21-17 at the half. The third quarter was wide open. Wilson threw two touchdown passes, one to Jones and one to Lane, but Indiana added 10 points of their own. BYU clung to a 34-31 lead going into the fourth quarter.
Indiana’s Tim Wilbur, a defensive back who doubled as a punt returner, brought a punt back 62 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. It was part of the Hoosiers consistently winning the battle of “little things.” They were better on special teams and by intercepting Wilson three times, they won the turnover battle 4-1.
Wilson kept firing and BYU got a field goal to cut the lead to 38-37 and then drove down to the Indiana 10-yard line with time for one more play. The field goal team came onto the field…and the short kick was missed.
Corso would never return to a bowl game. Edwards would be back many times over, including this same venue in 1984 where BYU capped an undefeated season with the national championship. But in the 1979 Holiday Bowl, it was Indiana who celebrated, getting a #19 finish in the final polls. BYU fell to #13 and went back to the drawing board for national respect.