On a chilly New Years Day, the #8 Houston Cougars beat seventh-ranked Nebraska, 17-14 in the 1980 Cotton Bowl. With 12 seconds left, quarterback Terry Elston hit Eric Herring on 4th down for the go-ahead touchdown.
The game-winning pass was deflected before Herring came down with it.
“I guess there was a little luck, plus Eric had good concentration and came up with the ball,” Elston said in the locker room. After the first quarter, the junior QB had come in for the starter Delrick Brown. For his part, Coach Bill Yeoman was dialed into the play-call but was unaware of the game situation.
“I didn’t know it was fourth down,” Coach Yeoman admitted in the postgame news conference. “Time got away from me, but it wouldn’t have made any difference. That was as good a play as we could have called anyway.
“There’s no question this is the best team we’ve had in 18 years at Houston.”
Nebraska averaged 345 yards rushing in the regular season, but the Mad Dogs held them to just 136 on the ground. Cornhusker coach Tom Osborne said Houston was the best defense his team played all year.
Herring was heavily recruited by Osborne and the Huskers but chose to play for Yeoman instead. Yeoman suggested to Herring that he might not want to go to Lincoln during the recruiting process. “You’ll get frozen digits up there,” he laughed.
Seconds before the most pivotal play of his life, Herring took the play call from Yeoman and jogged it to the huddle.
After the snap, Elston spun to his left then rolled right before finding a well-covered Herring in the middle of the end zone. A Nebraska linebacker edged into the middle of the field but collided with the defensive back Ric Lindquist. The ball deflected off of Lindquist’s arm, landing perfectly in Herring’s outstretched hands.
The comeback was UH’s seventh in the fourth quarter in the 1979 season and the fifth that Elston had led. After throwing the touchdown pass, his only one of the season, Elston was named MVP on 29 of 30 ballots. He ran for 87 yards on 22 carries and had 119 yards in the air in just three-quarters of play. His 66-yard, game-winning drive cemented his place in Cougar lore.
“We had confidence on that last drive because we’d done it so many times before,” Elston said. You have to have confidence if you expect to do well.”
Houston spent all of 1979 dealing with questions about the previous year’s Cotton Bowl after UH lost a 22-point lead, and Notre Dame pulled out a dramatic victory.
“At least we played the last minute of this game,” Yeoman said, referring to the 1979 defeat. “We’ve been thinking about that loss for a long, long time.”
UH ended the 1979 season 11-1 and finished #5 in both major polls.
The two videos below are from the game. The first is from the CBS broadcast – pregame until just after kickoff. The video also features a highlights package from a disinterested reporter from KXAS-TV in Fort Worth.
This video is a condensed version of the game – just the plays.