The Holiday Bowl was a young bowl game at the time, in only its third year. The 1980 Holiday Bowl pitted Brigham Young University (BYU) against Southern Methodist University (SMU). BYU entered the game with an 11-1 record. After losing the first game of the season (25-21 against New Mexico), the Cougars won 11 straight games to claim the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) Championship. BYU had overwhelmed most opponents with a high-powered pass-oriented offense led by future NFL quarterback Jim McMahon. The Cougars led the NCAA in total offense (535.0 yards per game), scoring (46.7 points per game), and passing offense (409.8 passing yards per game) during the 1980 regular season.
In contrast, SMU entered the game with an explosive run-heavy offense, nicknamed the "Pony Express." The Mustangs were led by two star running backs, Craig James and Eric Dickerson. Both James and Dickerson went on to careers in the NFL; Dickerson achieved superstar status with the Los Angeles Rams in the mid-1980s. The Mustangs entered the game with an 8-3 record, impressive considering they played in the tough Southwest Conference (SWC).
BYU had never won a bowl game in the entire history of the school, having lost the 1974 Fiesta Bowl and 1976 Tangerine Bowl as well as the first two Holiday Bowls (in 1978 and '79). For the first 56 minutes of the 1980 Holiday Bowl, it seemed the Cougars were destined for another defeat. BYU's defense couldn't handle SMU's offense, as James ran for 225 yards and Dickerson added 110. With just four minutes left in the game, the Mustangs scored to take a commanding 45-25 lead over the Cougars.
Many BYU fans started leaving the stadium. McMahon screamed at them, declaring that the game wasn't over yet. He promptly threw a touchdown pass to Matt Braga, and BYU recovered an on-side kick. The Cougars quickly marched down the field, ending the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run by Scott Phillips. SMU's lead had now been trimmed to 45-39. The Cougar defense forced the Mustangs to punt on the next possession, and BYU's Bill Schoepflin blocked the punt by SMU's Eric Kaifes with 13 seconds left in the game. The Cougar offense took over at the 41-yard line, with a last chance to win the game.
After throwing two incomplete passes, McMahon launched a Hail Mary into the end zone as time expired. Smothered by four SMU defenders, BYU tight end Clay Brown somehow managed to leap above them and haul in the football, scoring one of the most miraculous touchdowns in college football history. With the score tied, BYU's Kurt Gunther kicked the extra point to give the Cougars a "miracle" 46-45 victory.
BYU scored 21 points in the last 2 minutes and 33 seconds of the game. McMahon completed 32 of 49 passes for 446 yards to share MVP honors with SMU's James. The final statistics were remarkably even: SMU racked up 25 first downs and 446 total yards, while BYU finished with 23 first downs and 444 total yards.
In 2003, ESPN's "Page 2" feature listed the 1980 Holiday Bowl as one of the top 10 greatest bowl games ever played.
The game was placed in NCAA Football video games as a "College Classic", challenging players to recreate the ending. The challenge begins with the player as BYU, trailing 45-31.