There isn’t a year that’s gone by in the past four decades that Scott Phillips hasn’t had someone bring up the 1980 Holiday Bowl and the miraculous three touchdowns in the final four-minute comeback by the Cougars to beat SMU.

Memories of that 1980 game rise this week as BYU (7-5) prepares to meet SMU (7-5) in the 17th New Mexico Bowl in Albuquerque. Phillips now works as an attorney in Utah and is a member of the Riverside Country Club in Provo. He does legal work for both Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham and BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe, two of his teammates on that 1980 roster.

This BYU-SMU matchup is the fourth meeting between the schools. BYU is 3-0 in the series, but because SMU’s offense is so explosive and BYU’s can be if QB Jaren Hall plays, it’s expected to be a high-scoring affair. Both defenses have struggled this year.  

In that remarkable 1980 game, Phillips scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Jim McMahon’s Hail Mary to tight end Clay Brown to tie that game with seconds to play remains one of the game’s iconic moments. Kicker Kurt Gunther’s made PAT sealed the 46-45 win over the No. 18-ranked Mustangs.

Phillips, who BYU signed out of Springville High in the same recruiting class as Roy High’s  McMahon, were both star QBs in high school. In 1980, offensive coordinator Doug Scovil used Phillips mostly as a receiver positioned in the backfield as a running back.

“I caught more passes than I had carries as a runner,” said Phillips on Monday in a joint interview with the Deseret News and KTVX Channel 4.

“We lost the very first game of the year, surprisingly, and then we were undefeated up through that game (12-1). I don’t really recall what media types were saying regarding our chances of winning or losing. I felt like we were kind of an unstoppable offense, frankly. And so I didn’t go into the game thinking that we were a long shot by any means.”

SMU tailback Craig James outdistances takes off on a 45-yard fake punt for an SMU touchdown during the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, Dec. 19, 1980. | Lenny Ignelzi, Associated Press

SMU pounced on BYU, gaining huge chunk of yards with its famed Pony Express backfield comprised of Eric Dickerson and Craig James. The Mustangs were later given the “death penalty” by the NCAA for paying players, ironically, a scheme now approved by the NCAA through NIL deals.

SMU took a 45-25 lead on BYU on a 41-yard touchdown run by James with just under four minutes to play. The Cougars then scored 21 unanswered points on McMahon touchdowns to Phillips, Matt Braga and Brown.

“We had a hard time stopping them every time they had the ball,” said Phillips. “They seemed to have these long 30-yard runs or 50-yard runs and what I remember is the struggle of how to stop those two running backs.”

But he also recalls the energy of the comeback, the confidence and leadership of McMahon. He refused to lose, telling head coach LaVell Edwards that BYU should not punt on a fourth-and-long in the fourth quarter. “Are we just giving up?” McMahon is said to have asked Edwards. “It’s true, said Phillips. “That is what McMahon said.”

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In stories and tales traded and told long after, that BYU team has been characterized as miracle makers as if some kind of force took over the squad and secured victory from the jaws of defeat with a myriad of stars and unlikely performances. Phillips remembers BYU’s offense had tremendous confidence that it could score on anybody, but nobody could foresee what transpired.

“I’d like to think that we all thought that, but you look at the history of football, being down three touchdowns with under four minutes, and the chances are not real large that you’re gonna win the game. So I actually remember sitting on the bench with some player next to me, and just kind of shaking our heads going, ‘Here we are again. What’s the deal? Are we ever going to win a bowl game?’”

“I remember kind of saying that and thinking that at the same time, so there was a bit of rejection, I suppose. But at the same time, you never give up, right? I mean, when you get the ball, you still do what you can do and of course, there was that famous incident of McMahon refusing to give up and punt to SMU.” 

Phillips’ 1-yard touchdown run to cut SMU’s lead to 45-39 was a run to the right side of the line. People who have seen the footage from little-known Mizzou Network, before the days of our current cable TV offerings including ESPN, tell Phillips that on that scoring run, he looked like he was running slow to get to the edge and wondered why he wasn’t jetting to the pylon.

“I’ve had people tell me it seemed like I just coasted for a while before turning on the burners and making the corner. What they don’t know is it was actually a halfback pass option. I was looking for the fullback coming out into the corner of the end zone and so I was sort of coasting looking for him to come open and then it occurred to me that the corner was available. And so I turned it on and got the corner and scored the touchdown.”

Phillips caught a pass from McMahon on the two-point conversion after that one-yard TD run, so his fourth quarter contribution led directly to most of BYU’s 21 point-fourth quarter run.

McMahon’s 41-yard TD pass to Brown, thrown 53 yards in the air on third-and-10, remains one of the most dramatic plays in college football history. It’s been many times overshadowed by the winning touchdown thrown by Boston College QB Doug Flutie to Gerard Phelan to beat Miami in the Orange Bowl. That Flutie-Phelan play was seen by far more viewers than the McMahon throw, but the History Channel lists it as the No. 1 Hail Mary play of all time.

That BYU possession was set up by cornerback Bill Schoepflin, who blocked a punt that set the stage for history. But it was Phillips’ short run that helped get it there in the scoring barrage of 21 points in four minutes.

SMU punter Eric Kaifes has his punt blocked by BYU’s Bill Schoepflin with 18 seconds left in their Holiday Bowl game in San Diego on FILE - In this Dec. 20, 1980. SMU led 45-26 in the fourth quarter, but the Cougars scored the final three touchdowns, capping the comeback with a Hail Mary touchdown pass. | Lenny Ignelzi, Associated Press

Phillips said on that final possession, he expected BYU to move the ball and perhaps get a 20-yard shot at a score before the game ended, but with three seconds left, the call came in for a Hail Mary.

SMU was in a prevent defense of sorts but the call required Phillips and Eric Lane to stay in for max protection in case SMU blitzed their linebackers. As the play transpired and McMahon dropped back, Lane vacated his left side and ran toward the line of scrimmage.  Luckily, nobody blitzed on his side. On the other side, Phillips did get a chip block on a blitzing linebacker, perhaps giving McMahon some space.  

During the celebration, Phillips was sure to point out that Lane did not go into max protect but left. Lane’s reaction? “So what, we scored and won.” “Yeah, but …,” Phillips thought. “At least I was obedient, I guess.”

What if a linebacker had rushed in on McMahon’s deep drop and hit him before he could plant and release?

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These are the intricacies of football, sometimes a game of seconds and inches.

And it’s probably why guys like Phillips loved to play the game so much.

Many members of that team have died, including Edwards, offensive coordinator Scovil, receivers Danny Planter and Bill Davis, offensive line coach Roger French, defensive backs coach Dick Felt, and linebacker Glen Redd, to name a few.

Phillips said McMahon’s reputation in the NFL and beyond was wilder than when he was at BYU, which he labeled “mild” in comparison. “I played with Gifford Nielsen, Jim McMahon, Marc Wilson, some pretty good quarterbacks. Jim was a great leader on the field, never getting after a receiver when he dropped the ball, but telling them, ‘Let’s get it next time.’  He was confident and had a great feel for the game. He never got rattled when it was third-and-long; in fact he relished it.”

In 1980, both teams struggled to defend, although it was BYU’s blocked punt that enabled the late comeback.

This week, both BYU and SMU have had challenges on defense, SMU allows more points — 34 to BYU’s 30 — and gives up more on the ground 203 to 174. Both pass defenses are allowing about the same yardage with SMU at 242.8 and BYU 235.7.

If BYU’s Hall sits out, the edge should go to SMU with its experienced QB Tanner Mordecai, who is known as a gunslinger. But, if BYU runs the ball effectively and chews up the clock, SMU’s offense could be impacted a tinge, can’t it?

New Mexico Bowl on the air

BYU (7-5) vs. SMU (7-5)

Dec. 17, 5:30 p.m. MST

University Stadium, Albuquerque, New Mexico


Radio: KSL Newsradio 102.7 FM/1160 AM