Fighting Irish Flashback: Joe Montana's iconic 'Chicken Soup Game'

For our final installment of the 'Fighting Irish Flashback' of the season, we are looking back at Notre Dame's famous 1979 Cotton Bowl victory over the ninth-ranked Houston Cougars. A massive ice storm arrived in Dallas the day before the game, just in time to tailgate the contest. As such, the Cotton Bowl Stadium, which was originally supposed to have a sold-out crowd of 76,000, was roughly only half full for the season-ending affair.

The Irish had somewhat of a down year as the defending national champions after their dominant 38-10 victory over Texas in the Cotton Bowl the year prior. They went 8-3 during the regular season and were coming off a loss to USC (which dropped them to tenth in the AP standings) in the regular season finale a month before the icy matchup in Dallas.

Notre Dame was the more recognizable program, but Houston arguably had a better season. They finished the regular season with a 9-2 record and beat four teams ranked in the top ten of the AP polls. Nevertheless, they were still three-point underdogs leading up to the game, as many believed the outdoor elements would benefit the Irish since Houston played their home games under a dome.

Temperatures were well below freezing at kickoff, and the near-20 mph wind chill made for an especially frigid contest. The weather was problematic for Notre Dame's starting quarterback, Joe Montana, who had been battling the flu heading into the contest against the Cougars' stingy defense. There was a fear that being exposed to the elements would exacerbate the illness.

Montana may have been under the weather, but he didn't let that phase him. Notre Dame got out to a quick 12-0 lead with the help of their swarming defense, which forced fumbles on subsequent Cougar drives early in the game. The Irish signal-caller ran for the game's first touchdown and promptly led them on a short scoring drive after the second turnover. However, the momentum completely swung in the opposite direction from there, as Houston stayed composed and promptly stormed back after the rough start. 

The Irish defense may have started the game with a bang, but the Cougars had a stalwart defense (and special teams unit) of their own, and they were not going to go quietly. That defensive unit helped Houston take a 14-12 lead early in the second quarter by setting up their offense with a short field following two fumble recoveries. Montana added to the collapse with two interceptions on ensuing drives, and the Houston offense promptly capitalized with a pair of field goals to close out the half, taking a 20-12 halftime lead. 

Notre Dame would have to mount a comeback of their own if they wanted to start the year on the right foot, but the odds seemed to be great rather than small after Montana remained in the locker room following the break. Instead, the team sent out backup Tim Koegel, a sophomore signal-caller who threw only eight passes all year. Montana's body core temperature reportedly dipped as low as 96 degrees, and he looked like a long shot to return.

While spirits on Notre Dame's sideline were low, Houston was riding high after their first-half momentum carried over after the break. They scored two quick touchdowns via the legs of their dual-threat signal-caller, Danny Dennis, to take a 34-12 lead midway through the third quarter. It was at that point that Montana, with the help of a heavy dose of chicken noodle soup (the daughter of Notre Dame team doctor Les Bodar packed the soup for her father after seeing the weather report in Dallas) in the locker room, defied the odds and returned to the game.

Still, many felt it was too little, too late for the Irish as the lead seemed insurmountable with only a minute remaining in the third quarter. Those feelings were reinforced when the 22-year-old Montana picked up right where he left off in the first half, tossing back-to-back interceptions on his first two drives.  

Notre Dame's special teams unit swung the momentum back in their favor after defensive back Steve Cichy returned a blocked punt for a score midway through the fourth quarter. They followed that up with a quick strike 61-yard scoring drive and cut the deficit to six (with two-point conversions after each score) with just over four minutes left.

Even with seemingly everything going in Notre Dame's favor during their late-game surge, the Cougars' defense was not done making plays, and they forced another Montana turnover (his sixth of the day) with less than two minutes remaining. Everyone thought their comeback attempt had been thwarted, as there was simply not enough time left in the game to answer.

However, Notre Dame's freshman defensive end Joe Gramke had other ideas, as he promptly stopped Houston's offense short on 4th-and-one from their own 29-yard line on their ensuing drive, giving the offense one more chance to score with 28 seconds left. 

It took Notre Dame three plays to move the offense down to the eight-yard line, and they had only one last chance to score as time was set to expire on the luck of the Irish. Montana proved that he had ice running through his veins after he found Kris Haines in the right front corner of the end zone as the clock hit zeros.

Against all odds, with everything seemingly stacked against them, the Irish tied the game at 34 and were an extra point away from winning the game.

That was not the end of the drama as there was fear their kicker, Joe Unis, wasn't prepared for the kick after being exposed to the elements and not attempting a single kick all game. However, not only did he make the kick, but he did so twice since the first attempt got taken off the board due to a penalty against Notre Dame. It was a fitting end to an instant classic.

Despite Montana's heroic performance, many doubted his chances of making a name for himself in the pros. His turnovers may have been costly, but there was no denying that he had a deep-rooted 'clutch' gene and a determination to succeed.

Nevertheless, scouts were worried because it took Montana four years to grab the starting job in South Bend, and his arm strength also left a lot to be desired. He fell to the bottom of the third round before San Francisco mercifully ended his wait and selected him with the 82nd pick in the 1979 NFL Draft.

The rest is history for Montana, as he drastically outperformed his draft position and is widely considered one of the greatest signal-callers in NFL history, and certainly one of the most decorated.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame only had one more competitive season (they went 9-2-1 in '80 and lost against the undefeated Georgia Bulldogs in the Sugar Bowl) before they entered one of the most underwhelming periods in program history under Gerry Faust. 

The clash is widely considered one of the most entertaining Cotton Bowls in college football history. It was also a game that Fighting Irish faithful will always remember. 

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