Road to classic 1980 BYU-SMU bowl began in unexplainable loss in the ‘Land of Enchantment’
The Cougars and Mustangs will square off in another bowl showdown on Dec. 17 in the New Mexico Bowl
Whether it was witchcraft or magic, New Mexico’s self-described “Land of Enchantment” had No. 12 BYU spellbound and all out of sorts on Saturday, Sept. 6, 1980.
Jim McMahon and the Cougars marched into University Stadium and lost the season opener to the Lobos, 25-21. BYU’s offense was held to 197 yards and McMahon was sacked four times.
The Cougars defense, which was fresh off an 11-1 season in 1979, played as if it were in a trance, surrendering 400 yards of offense. Not even five New Mexico turnovers could turn the tide. The four-quarter haunting included 15 BYU penalties.
Still, the Cougars led 21-13 in the third quarter only to watch Lobos kicker Pete Parks finish the game with four consecutive field goals.
Once out of the “enchantment” and back home, BYU snapped out of its funk. McMahon and the Cougars ran off 12 straight victories, punishing teams along the way, including the likes of Wisconsin (28-3), UTEP (83-7), Utah (56-6) and UNLV (54-14).
The season finale pitted No. 14 BYU (11-1) against No. 19 SMU (8-3) in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego. The two teams combined for 890 yards of offense and 91 points. McMahon, months removed from the head-scratcher in Albuquerque, threw for 446 yards and four touchdowns, including a 41-yard bomb to Clay Brown to tie the game as time expired.
Kurt Gunther’s extra point capped a 21-point rally over the last 2:31 to stun the Mustangs 46-45 for BYU’s first bowl victory. Forty-one years later, in 2021, the San Diego Union-Tribune declared the game as the best Holiday Bowl of all time. Forty-two years later, on Dec. 17, 2022, BYU and SMU will reunite in the postseason in Albuquerque, in the same stadium where McMahon’s magical season got off to a less than “enchanting” start.
For this year’s BYU team, it wouldn’t matter if they were 10-2 or the current 7-5, as an independent, their bowl destination was always going to be something of a consolation prize for winning enough games on the outside of a Power Five conference. It’s been that way for a dozen years.
A final date before joining the Big 12 against SMU (7-5) is more than appropriate and deeply intriguing, especially when you consider the aggressive potential of each team’s offense and the generosity they each display on defense.
And then there is New Mexico. The state tourism bureau has been bragging about the landscapes, culture and history with its “Land of Enchantment” catch phrase since 1941.
Locals laud the native chili peppers, blue corn pancakes, balloon festivals and occasional UFO sightings in Roswell. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and “Game of Thrones” mastermind George R. Martin are the head-turners when it comes to its most famous residents.
The state even boasts Santa Fe as the oldest and highest elevated capital city in the United States (7,000 feet above sea level) and a popular home to art enthusiasts.
But what New Mexico doesn’t market is football. The Lobos in Albuquerque and the Aggies in Las Cruces don’t cut the mustard, or hot pepper, when it comes to the gridiron.
New Mexico has just two winning seasons in the last 15 years, which is one more than New Mexico State over the same period. To their credit, the NMSU Aggies are 6-6 this season and one win away from matching their highest total in 19 years.
No, for football, the “Land of Enchantment” turns to its New Mexico Bowl, where a pair of outside programs have dropped in to visit in 15 of its 17 games, including BYU and SMU on Dec. 17.
Asking the Cougars and Mustangs to deliver another bowl game that will be talked about for the next four decades is the bowl committee’s dream, but it is a very unreasonable request.
However, as was portrayed in the “Unsolved Mystery” of Sept. 6, 1980, once you stir up the mystic “enchantment,” what seems reasonable or practical goes out the door — just ask the 1980 BYU squad that is still trying to figure out what happened on that most unusual night at University Stadium that put them on the road to facing SMU for the first time.
Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “BYU Sports Nation Game Day,” “The Post Game Show,” “After Further Review,” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv. He is also co-host of “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com.