In 1989 the Holiday Bowl increased their per-team payout to a little over $1 million. The two teams who took the field in San Diego on December 30, 1989 – the Brigham Young Cougars and Penn State Nittany Lions – certainly earned their payouts. These two teams put on an offensive show, Penn State on the ground and Brigham Young through the air. By the time the game ended – over four hours later – each team had put up record-setting offensive numbers.
1989 was a bounce-back season for Penn State. In 1988 Joe Paterno had his first losing season, with the 1988 Nittany Lions going 5-6. For 1989, behind senior tailback Blair Thomas, Penn State rebounded with a 7-3-1 record including wins over #13 West Virginia and #19 Pitt (note that the tie was versus Maryland in Baltimore). Brigham Young was in the midst of a very successful run under LaVell Edwards, going 10-2 in 1989. However, the Cougars played a rather easy schedule with only two major conference opponents (a loss to Washington State and a win versus Oregon). In contrast to Penn State’s ground-based attack, Brigham Young was led by record-setting quarterback Ty Detmer.
As the game got underway it seemed like anything but the offensive showcase that folks (including this ‘writer’) were accustomed to seeing whenever Brigham Young took the field. The Nittany Lions and Cougars traded field goals and the game was tied at 3-3 after the first quarter. The teams exchanged field goals and touchdowns (one a piece) in the second quarter; however, Penn State missed the extra point. Brigham Young held a 13-12 halftime lead in what appeared to be a rather boring, run-of-the-mill bowl game.
In the third quarter, both Penn State and Brigham Young scored points early and often. After four touchdowns (that included a BYU missed extra point) and a field goal Penn State held a 29-26 lead at the end of the third quarter. The Nittany Lions got their scores on two Leroy Thompson runs and a field goal; while the Cougars got theirs via two Ty Detmer touchdown passes.
Early in the fourth quarter Penn State seemed to take control of the game. A Blair Thomas touchdown run (and another missed extra point) and a Tony Sacca bomb and circus catch in the endzone (coupled with a missed 2-point conversion) put the Nittany Lions up 41-26 with a little over 9 minutes left. At this point Brigham Young started a furious comeback. A touchdown run and a (gasp) successful extra point cut the lead to 8 at 41-33. Then another Ty Detmer touchdown pass gave the Cougars a chance to tie the game at 41. BYU went for the 2-point conversion; however, Penn State linebacker Andre Collins picked off Detmer’s conversion pass and returned it 102 yards for 2 Penn State points. Rather than a tie game, Penn State held a 43-39 lead.
Brigham Young got the ball back late in the game and was driving for a go-ahead touchdown. With under a minute to go, Penn State ‘Hero’ Gary Brown (aka, a safety who moved into a linebacker position versus the run, also known back then as the Rover or Roverback) yanked the ball from Detmer’s hands and returned it for a touchdown. Penn State was able to make the extra point, increasing the lead to the game’s final score of 50-39.
In a marathon session that lasted 4 hours and 17 minutes, causing a VERY late night for folks watching the ESPN broadcast (including this 23 year old ‘writer’) both teams combined for 64 points in the second half. For Penn State the offensive explosion was led by tailback Blair Thomas’ running. For Brigham Young it was quarterback Ty Detmer’s passing. With the increased per-team payout, Penn State earned roughly $20,000 a point that December evening in San Diego.
The 1989 Holiday Bowl featured a rather interesting epilogue. Penn State tailback Blair Thomas and Brigham Young quarterback Ty Detmer were named co-MVPs. Thomas rushed for a Holiday Bowl record 186 yards on 35 carries; and Detmer completed 42 of 59 passes for a Holiday Bowl record 576 yards. However, both Ty Detmer and Blair Thomas found their way onto this list: Detmer being another Heisman Trophy winning quarterback who couldn’t quite make things work in the NFL, and Thomas being forever remembered by New York Jets fans as the tailback their team drafted (with the #2 overall pick) rather than the University of Florida’s Emmitt Smith.
Northwestern – The Upset
Indiana – The Real Game of the Century
Nebraska – Surrender Whites
Michigan State – Earning a Rematch
Rutgers – A Program-Changing Season
Illinois – Running the Table
Maryland – Frank Reich’s First Comeback
Minnesota – The Field Goal