Boston College had a magical year in the 1984 college football season, one whose biggest moment lives on as perhaps the most famous sports play of the modern era. It would be a stretch to call Houston’s year magical, but the Cougars had a lot break right for them on the way to a Southwest Conference title. BC and Houston came together on January 1 at the 1985 Cotton Bowl. Here’s a look back on the paths each team took to Dallas…
Doug Flutie was coming into his senior year at quarterback and in 1984 he was outstanding in every way for BC. Flutie completed 58 percent of his passes, an extremely good number in this era, especially considering how often the offense threw the ball. He finished with over 3,600 passing yards and a dazzling 30/13 TD-INT ratio. He was fully deserving of his landslide Heisman Trophy selection.
Gerald Phelan would catch Flutie’s most famous pass and Phelan caught a lot more, leading the team with 71 catches and 1,065 receiving yards. Troy Stradford was a solid threat running the football with 862 yard and 5.2 yards a pop. Stradford was also skilled coming out of the backfield as a receiver with 41 catches for over 400 yards.
The Eagle defense was led by All-American defensive back Tony Thurman. They weren’t an overwhelmingly talented team, but this was a program with momentum under head coach Jack Bicknell. He’d gotten them to bowl games in 1982-83, the first time in over forty years and now was aiming for a return to New Year’s Day. BC was ranked #19 coming into the season.
BC opened with a 44-24 tuneup win over Western Carolina and then traveled to play Alabama in a prime-time battle. The Crimson Tide were now two years removed from the leadership of the legendary Bear Bryant, but expectations were still high and ‘Bama was ranked #9.
Boston College dug themselves a 31-14 hole in the third quarter, including giving up a 99-yard kickoff return. Then Flutie started his Heisman campaign in earnest. He ran for one touchdown and threw for another. He completed 19/38 passes for 254 yards. The Eagles won the turnover battle 6-2 and eventually pulled even 31-31. Stradford won the game with 42-yard touchdown jaunt with 3:26 left.
The 38-31 win vaulted BC to #10. This wouldn’t be a very good Tide team by the time all was said and done, as they finished 5-6. But it was a huge marquee win for the Eagles and with top teams falling left and right in the early part of 1984, Boston College was up to #4 by the time they played another game two weeks later.
BC then started a run of games against teams that would win between five and seven games. The Eagles blew out North Carolina 52-20 and got by Temple 24-10. But a road trip to West Virginia resulted in the first loss, a 21-20 nailbiter that pushed Boston College down to #11 in the rankings.
A 35-23 win over Rutgers followed, but BC gave it right back when they went to Penn State, where Joe Paterno was struggling with one of his worst teams to date, and lost 37-30. Bearing Army 45-31 and then knocking off Syracuse 24-16, in a game played in Foxboro, got Boston College back on track and had them ranked #10 with the season finale in Miami.
It was the Friday after Thanksgiving and from the BC standpoint, there wasn’t a lot on the line. Heisman ballots were usually turned in by this time and it’s impossible to suggest that Flutie’s hold on the trophy would be impacted by this game. Boston College had already accepted a bid to the Cotton Bowl. For a game that was meaningless, it proved to be as meaningful as you could imagine.
Flutie and Miami counterpart Bernie Kosar put on a passing display for the ages. Flutie threw for 472 yards, while Kosar threw for 447. Over the last quarter-plus there were six lead changes. The fifth of those changes came on a Hurricane touchdown with 28 seconds left that put them on top 45-41. BC got the ball back on their own 20, pushed to midfield and had time for one play.
What happened next became one of the most popular highlights of all-time. Flutie dropped back, launched the ball towards the end zone. Amidst a sea of bodies in the end zone, Phelan caught the pass. It was “The Magic Flutie” and it resulted in a 47-45 win, a lasting legend for both Flutie and Phelan.
Houston had joined the Southwest Conference prior to the 1976 season and under the direction of head coach Bill Yeoman, won the league’s Cotton Bowl bid three times in the next four years and went 2-1 in those games. The previous four years had seen a slippage—the Cougars only reached two bowl games from 1980-83 and coming off a 4-7 season, there was no reason to think 1984 would mark a turnaround.
The team’s best player was All-American tight end Carl Hilton, who caught 38 passes for 517 yards, but otherwise the personnel was fairly pedestrian. Quarterback Gerald Landry completed 48 percent of his passes for 6.4 yards-per-attempt, both numbers around the middle of an SWC that few quarterbacks that could throw the ball effectively.
Wide receiver Larry Sheppard also caught 38 passes, and running back Raymond Tate rushed for 864 yards, third-best in the SWC. Defensive back DeWayne Bowden intercepted six passes. On balance though, it wasn’t a great roster and Houston would never be ranked at any point in the 1984 college football season.
The season began with a 30-17 win over Miami-Ohio, but the Cougars quickly lost to another set of Cougars—those from Washington State, led by future NFL quarterback Mark Rypien, in a 35-7 rout. When Houston dropped a 30-28 decision to woeful Louisville, it looked like another long year was ahead for Yeoman.
Victories over mediocre teams in Baylor (27-17) and Texas A&M (9-7) got the conference schedule off to a good start and then came October 20.
Houston was playing SMU on the road. The Mustangs were ranked #6 in the country, had won the conference in 1982 and finished second in 1983. Houston stunned everyone by blowing the game open, with a 68-yard touchdown pass from Landry to Hilton opening up a 19-point lead. An SMU rally made the score respectable, but the 29-20 win was never in doubt.
The Cougars lost their next two games, falling to Arkansas 17-13 and TCU 21-14, both solid teams that would be in title contention in what was a jam-packed race for Dallas.
As Houston prepared to go to Texas, the Longhorns were leading the way with a 4-0 league mark and a #3 national ranking. TCU was 4-1 in SWC play, while Houston, SMU and Arkansas were all 3-2.
It was fully expected the Cougars would play their way out of the race in Austin on November 10. Instead, the opposite happened. After spotting the Longhorns a 7-0 lead, the Cougars got a field goal back, Landry threw a 79-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Ketchum and Houston built up a 20-17 lead by the fourth quarter.
The Cougars were hawking the ball in the secondary and intercepted five passes on the day. The big one came with the 20-17 lead and Texas driving. Bowden picked one off and took it 62 yards to the house. It was the dagger in a 29-15 win.
Houston had the next week off and watched Texas knock off TCU. It was now the Longhorns still holding the league lead, but a battalion of four two-loss teams (Houston, TCU, Arkansas and SMU) giving chase.
On November 24, Houston didn’t play an impressive game against a subpar Texas Tech team, but they won 24-17. Meanwhile, everything the Cougars could have wished for in the other games broke their way. Texas lost at Baylor. TCU lost at Texas A&M. Even the head-to-head SMU-Arkansas game when Houston’s way—SMU, whom the Cougars held the tiebreaker on, got the win.
It left Houston in a win-and-you’re-in spot for the season finale, and they had the perfect opponent—one of the worst teams in the country in Rice. The Cougars again didn’t dazzle anyone, but they won 38-26. Yeoman had his fourth Cotton Bowl bid and easily his most improbable.
The weather in Dallas on New Year’s Day was blustery and attendance was the lowest for the Cotton Bowl since 1948. Flutie did not play well, completing just 13/37 passes for 180 yards. His teammates had his back though, with Stradford and #2 running back Steve Strachan muscling for almost 300 yards between them.
Boston College built up a 31-14 lead, but a Pick-6 thrown by Flutie got momentum moving in the other direction and the lead was cut to 31-28. In recent years, BC fans had already seen their basketball team lose a big game to Houston—a regional final in the 1982 NCAA Tournament. Now it seemed like a major bowl win might be slipping away.
But the Eagles went back to Stradford and Strachan and pounded their way to an insurance touchdown and then tacked on one more for icing on the cake. Boston College had shown their versatility, winning a big game when their star quarterback was struggling. The 45-28 win gave them to a Top 5 national finish.
Both of these programs have had some special moments since—Houston produced a Heisman Trophy winner in Andre Ware in 1989. Boston College has produced a Super Bowl-winning head coach in Tom Coughlin, several notable national wins and a good NFL quarterback in Matt Ryan. But neither BC, nor Houston, has been on the major bowl stage since their meeting at the 1985 Cotton Bowl.