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Why BYU’s ‘Miracle Bowl’ win played a pivotal role in college football’s spread revolution

ESPN recently did a study on the rise of the spread offense, with one BYU football game taking the lead

BYU receiver Clay Brown goes up for a pass in the end zone with SMU defenders Dick Blaylock, right, Wes Hopkins, center, and Russell Washington on the last play of the Holiday Bowl game, Dec. 20, 1980 in San Diego. Brown caught the pass and BYU won the game 46-45 when they kicked the extra point with no time left on the clock.
Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — BYU fans won’t soon forget the 1980 Holiday Bowl, which is appropriately memorialized as the “Miracle Bowl.” The Cougars came out on top of SMU 46-45 with a late fourth-quarter scoring barrage which was capped off by a Hail Mary touchdown pass from BYU quarterback Jim McMahon to tight end Clay Brown.

ESPN’s Bill Connelly remembers it well, too, along with coach Hal Mumme, who is featured as one of the pioneering coaches of the spread offense in a series of articles.

“Watching LaVell Edwards’ BYU team score three touchdowns in four minutes to beat an old-school, power-heavy SMU team — in one of the sport’s greatest games, no less — while gaining 446 yards through the air and losing 2 yards on the ground, was all the proof of concept Mumme needed,” Connelly writes in his article ‘The 25 most important games in college football’s spread revolution.’

Mumme went on to become UTEP’s offensive coordinator shortly thereafter, and held many different coaching positions throughout his career, always focused on utilizing the spread offense.

Indeed, BYU’s miracle win over SMU is listed first in the 25 games covered by Connelly as being essential in the so-called ‘spread revolution’ of college football.

“A lot of the college football universe continued to see BYU’s pass-happy offense as gimmicky in some way, even as the Cougars won the 1984 national title and beat almost all of the sport’s blue bloods, from Miami to Penn State to Oklahoma to Notre Dame, over the course of about 15 years,” Connelly adds.

Another BYU game was part of the list, although it’s an outcome most Cougar fans have forgotten, or at least would like to.

In 1998, BYU lost in the Liberty Bowl to Tulane 41-27. The Green Wave was coached by Tommy Bowden back then, and utilized a spread concept, according to Connelly, to light up the scoreboard against BYU’s defense.

“Their Liberty Bowl victory was symbolic,” writes Connelly, “coming as it did against (LaVell) Edwards’ BYU. ‘BYU has never played a team like ours on offense,’ Tulane quarterback Shaun King said after throwing for 276 yards and rushing for 109.”

Although Bowden instituted the offense for Tulane that year, along with offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez, both didn’t coach in the bowl game after agreeing to take coaching positions at Clemson.