By: Phil Houk
25 points and four lead changes in the last two minutes, playoff football, overtime, the two best young quarterbacks in the league combining for seven TD passes and 686 yards passing. Gunslingers Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen left it all on the field and put on a show to remember the other night.
Shortly after the Chiefs advanced to the AFC championship game with the overtime win over the Bills, in all seriousness, I tweeted, “name a better game….EVER.”
The 2022 Chiefs-Bills game on a weekend of exciting pro football playoff competition, really had been that good, and will go down in history.
There were not many twitter responses that disagreed with my premise. But there was one suggestion that got me thinking, “ND 35 Houston 34, The Chicken Soup game.” Yep, that was a great football game, and if you didn’t experience it, or just don’t know much about the exciting New Year’s Day bowl victory by the Irish, you owe it to yourself to relive it.
The 1978 Fighting Irish were the defending national champions and came into the season with high hopes of defending their title. In 1977 after an early season loss, they settled on Joe Montana as their quarterback and rolled. But the new season started doubly bad with two losses, at home, first to Missouri on miserably hot day in South Bend, 3-0 and then to archrival Michigan 28-14.
The Irish, led by captains Bob Golic at linebacker, Jerome Heavens at running back and that quarterback by the name of Montana over the next several weeks righted the ship with eight straight wins, before falling at #3 USC by two points in the regular season finale. An 8-3 regular season record was disappointing but it was good enough to earn the Irish a berth in the New Year’s Day Cotton Bowl against the 9th ranked Houston Cougars. (Ironically the Cotton Bowl had been where the Irish clinched the 1977 national championship with a 38-10 win over Texas.)
January 1, 1979 was a miserable day in Dallas. On the heels of what was being called the “worst ice storm in 30 years”, over 50,000 homes in the area were without electricity. The ancient Astroturf field in the old Cotton Bowl stadium was set to be torn up after the game and was booby-trapped with patches of ice. The field was so bad that a Zamboni was brought in from a local ice rink to try and make the field playable.
According to reports the game time temperature was 21 degrees, a steady 18 mph wind made the wind chill -6. The Cotton Bowl stadium with a capacity of 72,000 was less than half full. A lot less. The weather was so unusually bad, that to this day the National Weather Service maintains a web page here about it.
The Irish in Dallas leading up to the game had practiced in fair weather. The storm and plunging temperatures arrived on December 30th and caught most by surprise. Not fully prepared for the elements, head coach Dan Devine dispatched team managers to a local Sears store and ND bought up all the warm weather gear they could find.
The Irish, clad in white jerseys with green numerals, took the opening kickoff and jumped out to an early lead on a three yard Montana scamper around end. Minutes later they added a one yard TD run by fullback Pete Buchanan after a Houston fumble. ND failed to convert either conversion and led 12-0.
Houston answered late in the first quarter on a 13 yard TD pass after a muffed punt to make it 12-7. That score was the only one of the day scored by either team against the prevailing wind.
Most of the rest of the game was dominated by Houston. The Cougars capitalized on two 2nd quarter Montana interceptions and managed a couple of field goals giving them the halftime lead 20-12.
Montana, who had been struggling with a flu bug, was playing like it. He completed just 7 of his first 27 passes.
In the halftime locker room it became apparent that Montana was struggling with more than just the flu. Hypothermia had set in. His body temperature had fallen to 96 degrees. He was covered with blankets, his face ashen. Team physician Leslie Bodner prescribed a home remedy.
Montana was fed a bowl of chicken soup. Those present in the locker room were certain there was no chance Montana would return to finish his last ever game as the Irish quarterback.
Back up Tim Koegel who had thrown just eight passes all year, took over at quarterback.
With Koegel running the show, the Irish offense was ineffective, and Houston continued their scoring run. Two more short TD runs were added by Cougars Quarterback Danny Davis, one after a blocked punt, and the Irish deficit with five minutes left in the third quarter reached 34-12.
To say the situation was grim would be an understatement.
And that is when Montana, now with a spring in his step, exited the locker room, rejoined his teammates and reentered the game. The Irish fans that remained in the stadium cheered the return of the “Comeback Kid”. Montana had led six come from behind victories during his ND career, but the odds of leading another looked remote.
The winds now gusting up to 38 MPH wrecked havoc with Montana’s passing game. On his first two drives after reentering the game, Joe threw interceptions, his third and fourth of the day.
Finally at the 7:25 mark of the final quarter a glimmer of hope shone on the Irish. Steve Cichy, a freshman defensive back picked up a blocked Houston punt and returned it 33 yards, making the score 34-18. Then the Irish pulled closer when Montana hit running back Vegas Ferguson for the two point conversion and the score was 34-20 with 7:25 left on the clock
The Irish defense forced a punt and with the wind at his back, Montana dialed in. He directed the Irish 61 yards in just 82 seconds. The drive included a 30 yard completion to Jerome Heavens and was capped off by a two yard Montana rollout run to the end zone, his second rushing score of the day. Joe then hit wide receiver Kris Haines for another two point conversion and suddenly with 4:15 remaining the improbable became plausible, Houston’s lead had been cut to six points.
The Notre Dame defense forced a punt and Montana worked the ball to the Houston 20, but with 1:50 left on the clock, he lost a fumble -his second of the day and his sixth total turnover. The legendary Lindsey Nelson, who was handling play by play duties on the CBS broadcast (Paul Hornung was on color), anticipating that the game had been decided, started reading off the credits for the game.
But the Irish were not done. With thirty seconds left, Houston was forced to punt and did so to the Notre Dame 44, the Irish however had been offsides on the play and after the five yard march off faced a fourth and one from their own 29. Houston head Coach Bill Yeoman (a Hoosier native), who had a 25 year run with the Cougars that included 11 bowl games, elected to try and finish off the Irish and went for it.
Emmett King, who had rushed for 1,095 yards for Houston that season was handed the ball up the middle and was stopped short. ND defensive lineman Joe Gramke was credited with the stop, and with 28 seconds left, the Irish were in business.
On play one Montana scrambled for 11 yards, next he hit Haines for 10 yards. Then with six seconds remaining from the eight yard line, he fired to the end zone, but missed Haines on the quick out route.
Two seconds remined, Montana looked to the sideline for a play and was waved off. The final play call of his Notre Dame career would be his own. He went back to the huddle and called Haines’ quick out route again. He took the snap, faded to the right, evaded a near sack and fired to the right side of the end zone. Haines made a diving catch as he was falling out of bounds, the catch was ruled a touchdown.
The game was tied at 34.
CBS was unable to offer any reply angle to clearly show how close Haines was to being out of bounds, because the sideline of the end zone view was obscured by media and supporters. One can only imagine how long a review would take and how many different angles would have been examined if the game was played today.
The Irish were now an extra point away from a Cotton Bowl victory and from overcoming a 22 point deficit in the last 7:25 of the game.
Walk on Joe Unis, had taken over ND place kicking duties late in the season when ND’s regular kicker, Chuck Male had been injured. Unis was a straight on style kicker, one of the last of a dying breed. The extra point play would be his first action since he missed the attempt after a botched snap after the initial TD in the first quarter. There were no sideline kicking nets at the time which today kickers routinely use to keep their legs tuned up.
Unis had done what he could to keep his kicking foot warm on the brutally cold day while standing on the sideline. A few years ago he told Mike Beradino of the Indy Star that he actually had rested his kicking foot directly on a portable sideline torpedo heater. “I was trying to keep my foot thawed out, so I could at least feel it.”
Unis still has the shoe, and, “It’s got a scorch mark on the bottom of it.”
Apparently his unorthodox foot warming method worked, because after a good snap and hold, he split the upright.
But of course the game wasn’t over, nothing was going to be easy on the day. The Irish were offside on the attempt. Minutes later and after clearing the field of both teams and celebrating ND fans that had thought the game over, Unis calmly repeated the process.
The Irish won 35-34.
With the amazing win in his last ND game, Joe Montana had engineered his seventh ND career come from behind win, and etched his reputation as “The Comeback Kid” on history. After having thrown four interceptions and losing two fumbles, he completed 6 of his final 7 passes, threw a touchdown pass, ran for another and executed a couple of two point conversion pass plays. All in a span of less than half of a quarter, on a brutally cold, windy, icy day, while fighting off the flu and hypothermia.
Montana of course went on to NFL glory that included four Super Bowl wins.
And Notre Dame fans have never looked at a bowl of chicken soup the same.