Forty years before Notre Dame got shellacked by Clemson in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, the Fighting Irish and a well-known quarterback used some chicken soup to rally to victory in what could be the greatest bowl game of all-time. At the conclusion of the 1978 college football season, 10th-ranked Notre Dame played No. 9 Houston in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1, 1979. And it was epic.
The Weather If you have ever been to Dallas in the winter, you know that temperatures are normally in the 50s and snow is rare. Winters in Dallas, for the most part, could be characterized as mild and cool. On Jan. 1, 1979, the Dallas weather was neither mild nor cool. Temperatures dropped to 30s and the city experienced its worst ice storm in 30 years. So, there was that.
The Teams Houston went 7-1 in the Southwest Conference and scored four victories over top-10 teams to go 9-2 in the regular season. Head coach Bill Yeoman’s veer offense was tough to stop. The Cougars beat sixth-ranked Texas in Austin in November to seal the SWC crown.
Notre Dame began the 1978 season with two losses – Missouri and No. 5 Michigan – before winning eight straight. They lost their rivalry game to No. 3 USC by two points (27-25) but were still selected to face Houston in the Cotton Bowl. The Irish had won the national championship the previous season and were led by a quarterback named Joe Montana.
The Game The pro-style offense run by Notre Dame and led by Montana helped the Fighting Irish score the 1979 Cotton Bowl’s first 12 points. Houston would score its first touchdown after a Notre Dame turnover and then, aided by the wind, would score 13 points in the second quarter to take a 20-12 halftime lead.
In the third quarter, the Houston veer was just too much for the Notre Dame defense. The Cougars scored 14 more points to build a 34-12 lead. To make matters worse, Montana, the team’s star, was ill. He was taken to the locker room by Notre Dame’s medical staff when they learned his body temperature had fallen to 96 degrees. And that is where this bowl game’s story really begins.
Video: The Chicken Soup Game - 125 Years of Notre Dame Football - Moment #114
How to Win a Bowl Game When Down by 22 With Montana in the locker room covered in blankets, the medical staff brought him some of that powerful potion known as … chicken soup. Montana gained enough strength to return to the field late in the fourth quarter. The Irish QB came back on the field to cheers from the Notre Dame fans. One problem – there was only 7:37 left in the game.
What transpired next is truly legendary. Montana watched as Houston punted on fourth down with 7:37 to play. The Irish blocked the punt and Steve Cichy picked up the football and ran 33 yards for a touchdown. 34-20.
Notre Dame’s defense forced another Houston punt and Montana quickly went to work. The senior threw three consecutive passes for 58 yards and then scored on a two-yard run. His two-point conversion pass was successful and now Notre Dame trailed just 34-28.
Notre Dame would get the ball back once again, but it seemed that the comeback was not meant to be. With 2:05 left, Montana ran 16 yards to the Houston 20-yard line but fumbled the ball and the Cougars recovered. The Irish would come up with a huge defensive stand on fourth down. From their own 29-yard line, Houston attempted to gain the single yard they needed for a game-clinching first down.
The Cougars were denied on fourth down and Montana and the Notre Dame offense took over at Houston’s 29 with just 28 seconds remaining in the game. The once-hypothermic Montana ran 11 yards and completed a pass to Kris Haines for 10 more to move the ball to the Houston eight-yard line. Montana tried to hit Haines again in the right corner of the end zone, but the pass fell incomplete.
With just two seconds to play, Montana found Haines in the end zone for the game-tying touchdown. With no time on the clock, kicker Joe Unis trotted out onto the field for the extra point. To add more drama to the finish, Unis nailed the kick but Notre Dame was called for illegal procedure on the play. Unis, ironically a Dallas native, then nailed the second attempt and the Fighting Irish won the 1979 Cotton Bowl 35-34.
The game’s MVP? The Comeback Kid himself, Joe Montana.