Editor's note: The following is the third of five excerpts from "Hail Mary: The Inside Story of BYU's 1980 Miracle Bowl Comeback" by Ryan E. Tibbitts. The book chronicles the 1980 Holiday Bowl on Dec. 19 between BYU and Southern Methodist University in San Diego. The Cougars trailed 45-25 with less than three minutes left in the fourth quarter, but rallied to win 46-45.

BYU scored again near the end of the first half on an 83-yard punt return by freshman Vai Sikahema. In a reversal of fortune from the 1979 Holiday Bowl, Sikahema did nearly the same thing to SMU that Tim Wilbur of Indiana had done to BYU.

The SMU punt was not as long as Vai had anticipated. Vai hung back as though he would simply let the punt bounce so the ball could be downed by the Mustangs. SMU noticed what Vai was doing, so they eased up a little in their pursuit and began to settle down around the ball. At that point, Vai made a split-second mental calculation and decided that given the score and the point in the game, he didn’t have anything to lose. Just as SMU geared down, the ball bounced in Vai’s direction. He grabbed it and, already running toward the other end zone, he turned on the speed, threw a couple of moves on SMU defenders, and sprinted nearly untouched to the end zone at the other end of the field.

It was a spectacular, gutsy play by a freshmen return specialist—one that coaches would not necessarily encourage or teach. But it was a critical play for BYU in the Miracle Bowl, preventing the game from becoming a complete blowout in the first half. McMahon recalls grabbing Vai after the punt return and telling him, “Kid, you have just given us a chance!” It would get worse before it got better for BYU, but McMahon had a point.

In the first quarter, Sikahema had been leveled by a ferocious hit by SMU’s Waldo Theus on one kickoff return. Shortly thereafter, on an SMU punt, Sikahema fumbled but was able to fall on the ball and retain possession for BYU. BYU was lucky on that fumble as the first player to reach the ball was an SMU player who was moving so fast he sort of slid off the ball and allowed Vai to recover it. Had SMU recovered that fumble very close to the BYU goal line so early in the game, that would have compounded the first-half disaster.

The memory of those two unsuccessful earlier returns conditioned Sikahema to take a chance on the punt—he is not one to go away quietly. Regardless, it was a huge play for the Cougars going into the second half.

The BYU defense also made some plays in the first half. SMU had to punt a couple of times, one of which obviously gave Sikahema his chance, and there were other key stops. The BYU defense made many swarming tackles during the game, which shows that they were slugging it out every step of the way—if, at times, with limited success against the Pony Express.

"Hail Mary: The Inside Story of BYU's 1980 Miracle Bowl Comeback" is available at Deseret Book, Barnes & Noble, Seagull Books, Dolly's Bookstore and BooksAndThings.com and Amazon.com. Tibbitts will be signing his book at the Rexburg, Idaho, Deseret Book on Dec. 13 from 1 to 3 p.m. and at the University Village Deseret Book in Orem on Dec. 20 from 2 to 4 p.m., along with special guests Coach LaVell Edwards and former BYU kicker Kurt Gunther.