Dallas and Arlington, Texas saw some memorable finishes between top teams.
The Cotton Bowl is one of the oldest bowl games in college football. Since the 1936 college football season, the teams have played in Dallas and Arlington, Texas to often determine the national champion. In recent years, it has been a College Football Playoff semifinal game.
Champions from the Big 12, the SEC, and the now-defunct Southwest Conference often faced runners-up from other conferences or major league teams. Here are five of the most memorable plays in Cotton Bowl history:
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Notre Dame had not played in a bowl game in 45 years, but reversed course in 1969 and decided to meet the winner of the Southwest Conference in the Cotton Bowl on January 1, 1970. 8-1-1 regular season record featured quarterback Joe Theismann on offense and the nation’s ninth-best defense.
Texas entered the game with the fourth-best scoring offense and fifth-best scoring defense in the country. The Longhorns did not allow more than 17 points in any game this season and outscored their opponents 414-102 in the regular season. Running backs Ted Coy, Steve Worster and Jim Bertelsen led the way on offense while running backs Bill Atesis and Leo Brooks set the tone on defense.
The Fighting Irish scored the game’s first 10 points, but Texas answered with a Bertelsen touchdown to make it 10-7 at halftime. A scoreless third quarter set up a final frame with three total touchdowns.
Texas got on the board first, with Coy finding the end zone from three yards out for a go-ahead touchdown and a 14-10 lead. Theismann and the Notre Dame quarterback drove 80 yards to retake the lead on a 24-yard touchdown pass. There were nearly seven minutes left on the clock, enough for the Longhorns to power play. Junior running back Billy Dale scored from two yards out to give Texas a 21-17 lead and the defense held.
The win gave Texas its second national championship in program history, following the Longhorns’ 1963 title.
1979 Cotton Bowl: Notre Dame 35, Houston 34
The Chicken Soup Game is one of the most memorable college football games of all time. The game was sold out, but the stadium was only half full due to the worst ice storm in decades to hit the Dallas area. Kick-off temperatures were 22 degrees with a wind chill of -6 degrees and these temperatures affected the old grass pitch which had to be torn up after the end of the season.
Defending champion Notre Dame, led by future NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana, lost its first two games of the season to Missouri and Michigan before reeling off eight straight. A loss to eventual champion USC in the regular season finale left the Fighting Irish out of contention for another title.
Houston won its first Southwest Conference (now Big 12) title behind running backs Randy Love and Emmett King. Both rushed for more than 1,000 yards as the Cougars fielded a top-15 offense in the country.
Notre Dame jumped out to a 12-0 lead before Houston responded with 20 unanswered points to take a 20-12 halftime lead. Montana was battling hypothermia in the frigid conditions and had to wait out the second half in the locker room. Medical staff gave him chicken broth soup and covered him with blankets to raise his body temperature.
Houston took advantage of Montana’s absence to score two more touchdowns and take a 34-12 lead. Although Montana made a comeback late in the third quarter, he threw interceptions on his first two drives of the game.
Steve Cicci returned a fumble for a Notre Dame touchdown to cut the deficit to 34-20. Montana ran it in from two yards out on the ensuing drive. Notre Dame was then stopped on fourth-and-one to give the ball back to Houston’s 29-yard line with 28 seconds left in the game. Montana found Chris Haynes as time expired to give Notre Dame its second straight Cotton Bowl victory.
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2023 Cotton Bowl (January): Tulane 46, USC 45
This is not a recency bias; Last season’s Cotton Bowl was another exciting, complicated affair.
Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams led USC to 11 wins in 2022, head coach Lincoln Riley’s first year in Los Angeles. A receiving corps of Jordan Addison, Taj Washington and Mario Williams and the one-two punch of Travis Dye and running back Austin Jones propelled the Trojans to the third-highest scoring offense in the FBS.
Tulane’s offense put up points with ease, and in 2022 running back Tyja Spears led the FBS in touchdowns (21) and was fifth in rushing yards (1,581). One of the best defenses in college football (22.2 points allowed per game) kept the Green Wave ahead in most games and helped secure the school’s first Cotton Bowl berth.
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USC entered as slight favorites and accordingly jumped out to a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter. The teams traded touchdowns and USC took a 28-14 halftime lead thanks to Williams’ touchdown toss to Brendan Rice a minute before halftime.
Tulane cut the deficit to 35-30 late in the third quarter, but USC responded and held a 45-30 lead with just 4:30 left in the game.
“They’re down by two scores, but this game isn’t over,” spokesman Robert Griffin III said as Tulane began its ensuing drive. “Tulane has the playmakers to do it.”
He was right; It took Tulane just two plays to score a touchdown. On the ensuing kickoff, Mario Williams fumbled the ball out of bounds at the Trojans’ 1-yard line. Two plays later, Green Wave defenders tackled Jones in the end zone for a safety. Tulane went 66 yards on its next drive and scored on a touchdown pass from Michael Pratt to Alex Bowman to take the win 46-45 with nine seconds left.
1980 Cotton Bowl: Houston 17, Nebraska 14
Houston’s heartbreak in 1979 didn’t stop the Cougars from making a second straight Cotton Bowl appearance.
Coach Bill Yeoman and the Cougars looked a little different in 1979. Quarterback Terald Clark led the way on offense, but Houston’s top-10 defense propelled the Cougars to a 10-1 regular season.
Nebraska boasted the 11th-best scoring offense and eighth-best scoring defense in college football in 1979. Cornhuskers coach Tom Osborne led the team to its 11th straight game with bowl, but their first Cotton Bowl game in six years. Only a loss to Oklahoma in the regular season finale kept Nebraska from a perfect record in 1979.
Given their performance on each side of the ball, Nebraska entered the game as a slight favorite. Cornhuskers halfback Jarvis Redwine scored late in the first quarter to give Nebraska a 7-0 lead. Houston also scored before halftime to make it 7-7.
A scoreless third quarter gave way to a Houston field goal with 8:25 left in the game. Nebraska answered minutes later with a six-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jeff Quinn to tight end Jeff Finn. Down 14-10 with just under four minutes remaining, Houston’s offense went the length of the court. Quarterback Terry Elston found Eric Herring in the back of the end zone between two defenders for a go-ahead touchdown with 12 seconds left.
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The 2015 edition was another modern classic in the first season of the College Football Playoff.
Junior quarterback Connor Cook had his best season in East Lansing to lead the Spartans to a 10-2 regular season with losses to eventual national champion Ohio State and runner-up Oregon. Michigan State was in the top 10 for the remainder of the season thanks to the seventh-best scoring offense in the FBS.
On the other side of this one, Baylor brought the highest scoring offense in the FBS to the Cotton Bowl behind quarterback Bryce Petty and wideout Corey Coleman. The Big 12 co-champions made the Cotton Bowl for the first time since 1980.
Baylor’s high-scoring offense showed up in a big way in the first half of the game. The teams traded touchdowns to make it 14-14 after the first quarter, but Baylor scored 20 unanswered points to make it 34-14 early in the third. Michigan State answered with a two-yard run by running back Jeremy Langford to cut it to 34-21, but the Bears responded with another score of their own to make it 41-21 entering the final frame.
Michigan State’s defense held strong in the fourth quarter and let the offense run. Cook found wide receiver Keith Mumphrey with 17 seconds left for the Spartans’ third touchdown of the quarter to go ahead 42-41 and earn their first Cotton Bowl victory in program history.
That Cotton Bowl game set the record for most points (83), yards (1,187), and Bryce Petty set the record for most passing yards with 550 yards.
2023 Cotton Bowl (December)
The Cotton Bowl game for the 2023 college football season will take place on Friday, December 29. No. 9 Missouri (10-2) meets No. 7 Ohio State (11-1) at AT&T Stadium with kickoff set for 8:00 pm ET on ESPN.