BYU’s History in San Diego Bowl Games

BYU Michigan

By Danny Holmgren

In eight days BYU will face off with old MWC rival San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego. While many fans will utter a collective sigh of relief at the end of the game due to this game signaling the end of the Riley Nelson era at BYU, the game itself actually brings a lot of history and intrigue in and of itself, regardless of whether James Lark or Nelson starts at quarterback.

The Poinsettia Bowl will mark the 12th time that BYU has played a bowl game in San Diego. Throughout the 70s and 80s, BYU playing in the Holiday Bowl was almost as much a part of the Christmas season as Santa Claus and lumps of coal. Beginning in 1978, BYU played in the Holiday Bowl seven consecutive years, including victories over #19 SMU in the game famously dubbed the “Miracle Bowl,” a victory over #18 Washington State, and a win over perennial powerhouse Michigan in 1984 to cap BYU’s only National Championship season. Overall, BYU owns a record of 4-6-1 in Holiday Bowl games, with the tie coming against #7 Iowa in 1991. The Poinsettia Bowl will actually mark BYU’s first San Diego bowl game other than the Holiday Bowl.

Date W/L Team Score Team Score
12/22/1978 L BYU 16 Navy 23
12/21/1979 L #9 BYU 37 Indiana 38
12/19/1980 W #14 BYU 46 #19 SMU 45
12/18/1981 W #12 BYU 38 #18 Washington State 36
12/17/1982 L BYU 17 #16 Ohio State 47
12/23/1983 W #9 BYU 21 Missouri 17
12/21/1984 W #1 BYU 24 Michigan 17
12/29/1989 L #16 BYU 39 #18 Penn State 50
12/29/1990 L #9 BYU 14 #19 Texas A&M 65
12/30/1991 T BYU 13 #7 Iowa 13
12/30/1993 L BYU 21 #10 Ohio State 28

My first memory as a small child of watching BYU play football was sitting on my parent’s bed with my dad watching Ty Detmer in the 1990 Holiday Bowl. I was seven years old and didn’t fully understand the game yet, but I remember how much my dad loved watching Ty play. Fortunately, I don’t remember the drubbing that Texas A&M laid on BYU that year, beating the Y 65-14. Here’s a sampling of the most exciting BYU Holiday Bowl victories:

“Miracle Bowl” 1980 vs #19 SMU, 46-45

Perhaps the most famous bowl game in BYU history and one of the most memorable in NCAA history, the 1980 Holiday Bowl pegged BYU against powerhouse SMU. Led by a double-headed monster at running back in Eric Dickerson and Craig James, the Mustangs rolled out to a 45-25 lead with just four minutes left in the game. Dickerson had 110 yards rushing and James had 225, as the SMU offense had proven too much to handle for the Cougar defense. But BYU’s own mustang, Jim McMahon decided he’d just as soon not leave San Diego with a loss. Many BYU fans, my father included, left Jack Murphy stadium early assuming the deficit was too great to overcome. McMahon quickly threw a TD pass to Matt Braga and recovered an on-side kick. They quickly drove the ball down the field thanks to perfectly thrown bomb by McMahon and then scored a rushing TD from the 1-yard line, trimming the SMU lead to 45-39. The Cougar defense held, forcing the Mustangs to punt with 13 seconds left, a punt which BYU blocked and recovered at the 41-yard line. McMahon launched a Hail Mary on the final play of the game which was caught by Clay Brown, despite being mauled by a handful of Mustang defenders. In the days before Twitter, ESPN apps, and cell phones, many Cougar fans weren’t even aware of the comeback until the next day. My dad will never forget seeing the comeback on a the highlights the next day in a casino in Las Vegas while driving back to Utah.

National Championship 1984 vs Michigan

While controversial with some NCAA fans, BYU’s victory over Michigan in the 1984 Holiday Bowl left BYU as the only undefeated team in the country and BYU was awarded with its first and only National Championship. The victory marked the first time that a national champion played its bowl game in December, due to a contractual tie-in that the WAC conference had with the Holiday Bowl. In an effort to pit the best opponent possible against the probable national champions, the Holiday Bowl landed Michigan to play against the Cougars. Though a closer game than some predicted, BYU was able to defeat Michigan 24-17 to cap its perfect season.

Steve Young’s Game Winning TD Catch 1983 vs Missouri

In All-American Steve Young’s final collegiate game, BYU played a tough game against Missouri. In a back and forth contest, Young won the MVP award in accomplishing the rare feat of a TD pass, run, and catch in the same game. Trailing 17-14 with 23 seconds remaining, Young gave a handoff to running back Eddie Stinnett. Stinnett rushed to the right side before pulling back and throwing back across the field. The ball barely dropped over the outstretched fingers of the Missouri defender and fell into Young’s hands. Young weaved his way through Tiger defenders before falling into the end zone to give BYU the 21-17 victory. After landing in the end zone Young stood up and showed a rare exhibition of dancing, pumping his legs up and down in what he described as “an indian war dance” in his autobiography.

In the Poinsettia Bowl BYU will face off against their old MWC foe, San Diego State, which will also be a reunion for coach Bronco Mendenhall with his mentor and current Aztec coach, Rocky Long. The 2012 season for BYU has fallen short of the expectations of many. Quarterback Riley Nelson has been given a 50-50 chance of being healthy enough to start the game, in which case James Lark would be given the starter in his second consecutive game. Regardless of who gets the nod, BYU may need to generate some of that old school San Diego bowl game magic to defeat the Aztecs and end the otherwise disappointing season on a high note.

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