Notre Dame vs. Houston 1979 Cotton Bowl: The Chicken Soup Game

In Notre Dame’s lengthy bowl history, few endings have been as dramatic as their 35-34 Cotton Bowl win over the Houston Cougars on Jan. 1, 1979. The contest was highlighted by a thrilling Irish comeback that was fueled by an unlikely source: chicken soup. That magic elixir allowed Joe Montana to close out his Notre Dame career with the type of clutch play that would continue through his remarkable NFL career.

The victory over Houston put an exciting cap on a season that began with two disappointing losses. Those defeats helped end any talk of repeating as national champions. A heartbreaking last-second loss in the regular season finale at arch-rival Southern Cal then dulled any momentum for the Irish’s second straight appearance in the Cotton Bowl.

Notre Dame was playing in its fourth Cotton Bowl of the decade. The Irish lost to Texas in the 1970 classic before getting the best of the Longhorns in the 1971 Cotton Bowl. Notre Dame got the best of Texas again in the 1978 Cotton Bowl to clinch the program’s 10th national championship.

The Coaches: Devine back under pressure a year after title

Dan Devine was closing out his fourth season as head coach at Notre Dame and again feeling the heat from the school’s fan base with an 8-3 record. His shaky tenure the year before had appeared to stabilize after the Irish put together a remarkable run that was capped with the school’s 10th national title.

Bill Yeoman was in the 17th of his 25 seasons as the Cougars’ head coach and had led his 1978 team to a 9-2 record. His legendary Veer offense was still clicking, averaging 330 yards per game and five yards per carry. On the other side of the ball, the Houston defense had held four opponents to single digits in the scoring column.

The Key Players: Joe Montana and Irish running backs lead the offense

Montana’s flair for the dramatic didn’t simply materialize during this contest. It had been a developing skill that proved to be part of his DNA in the years ahead. His two main running backs, Vagas Ferguson and Jerome Heavens, combined to rush for over 1,900 yards in 1978. They also supplemented a modest passing attack that saw Kris Haines lead the team with 32 receptions on the season. On defense, linebacker Bob Golic was a driving force who was aided by a secondary that included players like Dave Waymer, Joe Restic and Jim Browner.

Given the Cougars’ offensive approach, the fact that no Houston receiver had 30 catches or more shouldn’t come as a surprise. Quarterback Danny Davis threw for over 1,000 yards, but he largely relied on his running back duo of Randy Love and Emmett King, who each rushed for over 1,000 yards. On defense, defensive linemen Leonard Mitchell and Hosea Taylor, along with linebacker David Hodge were hoping to stop a late-season uptick in opponent scoring.

The Game: Montana spurred yet another comeback, this time with some Campbell’s soup

In the buildup to the game, Devine made a point to dispel the notion that the Irish had little motivation for the game, given that no title was in play. When the game began, the miserable weather conditions created by an earlier ice storm resulted in a wind chill of minus six degrees.

One ominous sign as the game got underway was that Montana was battling the flu. Despite that health concern, the Irish got all of the early breaks in the form of two Cougar fumbles that were converted into scores. First, Montana ran it in from three yards out and was soon followed by freshman fullback Pete Buchanan’s scoring plunge. In both cases, Notre Dame failed on a conversion attempt to hold a 12-0 advantage.

In the final two minutes of the opening quarter, the Irish forced Houston to punt but disaster followed. The punt glanced off Waymer and the Cougars took over at the Irish 12. Houston converted a third-and-13 play into a touchdown with 17 ticks left on the first-quarter clock.

Midway through the second period, Montana had problems with a snap and Hodge recovered for the Cougars at the Notre Dame 21. On fourth-and-goal at the one, Houston pushed it in to take their first lead at 14-12.

By halftime, it was clear that Montana was struggling as he closed out the half with two interceptions that led to a pair of Houston field goals and a 20-12 halftime lead for the Cougars. After reaching the Irish locker room, Montana was soon shaking due to chills and saw his temperature drop to 96 degrees.

The Notre Dame medical staff wouldn’t allow Montana to return to the game until his body temperature returned to normal. Hoping to expedite the process, team physician Dr. Les Bodnar gave Montana the chicken soup that did the trick.

During that rapid recovery, Houston scored two more touchdowns to boost their lead to 34-12 with 4:40 to go in the third quarter. Even though Montana was back playing, he missed connecting on 10 of his first 11 pass attempts and threw his third interception of the game. While the signal-caller ultimately led the Irish to victory, it was a special teams’ gem that ignited the comeback.

With 7:25 left to play, the Irish’s Steve Cichy returned a blocked punt 33 yards, with Vagas Ferguson then catching a Montana two-point conversion attempt. After Notre Dame quickly stopped Houston, Montana needed just five plays to drive 61 yards, running the last two by himself. He then found Kris Haines for another two-pointer to make it 34-28 with 4:20 to go.

Another defensive stop by the Irish gave Montana the ball back with 2:25 remaining, but he fumbled the ball away at the Cougar 20 with 1:50 left. Once again, Irish defenders rose to the occasion by stopping Houston on fourth-and-one at the Cougar 29 with 28 seconds left.

After first running for 11 yards, Montana again hooked up with Haines on a 10-yard grab to leave six seconds on the clock. After a quick pass attempt to Haines failed and left just two seconds to play, the duo connected for the tying score as time ran out. Dallas native Joe Unis then notched the winning extra point that required two tries after a penalty on the first attempt.

The Aftermath

In the final polls, Notre Dame finished in seventh place, moving up three spots after the win. Houston dropped one spot to finish 10th for the season. The following year, Devine saw the team stumble to a 7-4 record and no bowl game action. He then capped his Notre Dame tenure with a 9-2-1 mark in 1980, falling to eventual national champion Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.

That Cotton Bowl matchup remains the only time that the Irish and the Cougars have battled on the gridiron. Yet, Notre Dame’s victory remains a testament to the power of home remedies and earned a permanent spot in college football lore.

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