1979 Indiana Football: Lee Corso’s Best Year In Bloomington
Today, Lee Corso is nationally recognized for his work as an ESPN college football analyst. He’s right behind colleague Kirk Herbstreit as the face of college football. When he coached the 1979 Indiana football team, Corso was just a witty—if mostly unknown head coach—trying to get a program over the hump.
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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, even if 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 the IU 45-yard-line and they made it count, a bomb to Anthony Carter that broke Hoosier hearts, 27-21.
There was still reason for the Hoosiers to feel good about the way they had played and they hosted Minnesota a week later. 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.
And while it wasn’t a New Year’s Day bowl, it was still a pretty attractive invite. The Holiday Bowl offered not just a winter trip to San Diego, but the chance to play ninth-ranked BYU. The Cougars were undefeated and as the WAC champion, were contractually obligated to the Holiday.
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 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. The Cougars tied the game back up, 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. BYU got two touchdown passes, 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 three passes, they won the turnover battle 4-1.
BYU kept coming, with a field goal to cut the lead to 38-37 and then driving 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. Indiana could celebrate.
As it turned out, this was Corso’s high point in Bloomington. He never made another bowl game. But his ’79 Indiana team was a memorable one, they played an epic bowl game and got a #19 finish in the final polls.