The sixth-ranked Houston Cougars wrote a rousing final chapter on New Year's Day to college football's comeback of the year, shattering fourth-ranked Maryland's dreams of its first unbeaten season with a 30-21 Cotton Bowl victory over the courageous Terrapins.
The Cougars, 2-8 last year in their final season as an independent, finished 10-2 in their first year of play in the Southwest Conference and had the last laugh on critics who said they were unfit for SWC competition.
"I don't know how anything could be more gratifying," said a drained. Houston coach Bill Yeoman. "Regardless of what else transpires, I think we should be ranked at least fourth in tha nation."
Yeoman gushed praise for Maryland saying, "Maryland won 11 games and I just think our team did a super job against a team that was ranked as high (No. 6) in the nation against the rush."
Maryland coach Jerry Claiborne said, "I was proud of the way our players came back."
Houston blitzed Maryland for three first-period touchdowns in less than six minutes with Ovral Thomas and Alois Blackwell scoring on runs.
Maryland quarterback Mark Manges said, "They really took it to us that first quarter. We haven't seen a team that quick or even close to it all year."
Houston quarterback Danny Davis, who wore a jersey during August workouts that said, "Houston, SWC champions," was asked what he was going to wear next year.
"I'm going to wear a shirt that says, 'Houston, national champions,'" Davis said.
"We did everything we had to do in the Southwest Conference," said Blackwell, who helped the Cougars to a league cochampionship (with Texas Tech) in their first year of league competition. "Now we're won the Cotton Bowl and we will be back next year, too.
"We had to try and keep the ball late in the game but we still knew if we gave it up, our defense would rise to the occasion."
Claiborne said the game, played in nearly freezing conditions, turned on Maryland's early errors.
"We made so many mistakes in the first half," Claiborne said. "I thought the big play was Davis' pass late in the game. That saved them."
The Cougars thoroughly dominated Maryland and built up a 27-7 halftime lead before Manges set fire to his listless team in the 29-degree cold.
Houston, making its first appearance in the Cotton Bowl, controlled Maryland with incredible ease in a less than six-minute span of the first periode champions' 15-game winning streak was snapped.
With the crowd huddling in amazement, Thomas bolted 11 yards untouched around left end for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead. Blackwell romped 33 yards, breaking three tackles as he went for a 14-0 margin and then barged one yard for a third touchdown all in the first period.
On Houston's first series of the day quarterback Davis fumbled when hit in the passing pocket and Maryland recovered at the Houston 30. That, as it proved, was Maryland's one chance for early foot.
Manges drove the Terrapins for one first down, but Ed Loncar missed a 28-yard field goal attempt from the right hashmark wide to the right.
Houston immediately came to life, driving 80 yards in 11 plays in an authoritative drive that consumed 8 minutes and 33 seconds. The Terps, who had gained the first initiative, were driven back on their heels as Davis picked up two third-down conversions to keep the drive in motion, then pitched at the last second to Thomas on a veer-option-left for the 11-yard score.
On the first Maryland drive after the ensuing kickoff, Houston's Mark Mohr hurdled a Terp blocker and smothered a Mike Sochko punt. The ball, which smacked into Mohr's hands while the Cougar was almost upside down in the air, bounced sideways out of bounds at the Maryland 38.
After two lackluster plays gained five yards, Blackwell introduced himself for what was to be a most productive afternoon, bursting into the Maryland secondary over left tackle. Three Terps, including menacing tackle Joe Campbell, only smacked Blackwell on the thigh pads with their right hands as he sped past, ignoring the arm tackles.
Maryland's miseries piled up faster and faster as Manges fumbled on the first play after the following kickoff. Houston all-America tackle Wilson Whitley, 6-foot-3, 268 pounds, dove for Manges as he optioned right, grabbed one of Manges' arms, then the other as he and the Maryland quarterback spun to the ground in a knot. The ball was wrenched loose and covered at the Terp 24 by several Cougars.
Five plays later, Blackwell blasted into the end zone for a 21-0 lead. The Terrapins were on their backs and in deep trouble.
Maryland finally got a break when a 77-yard Mike Sochko punt rolled dead at the Cougar two-yard line. The Terps forced the first Houston punt of the game and Manges took over at the COugar 49-yard line.
Nine plays later, Manges ran the last six yards behind a Tim Wilson block to get Maryland on the board.
But Houston struck back before the half as Davis winged a 33-yard scoring bomb to Don Bass on a post pattern wiht just 55 seconds left in the half. The low, line drive spiral that Bass took in stride a step behind the Maryland secondary ended a 97-yard, double-time march in nine plays.
Maryland, which finished 11-1, cashed two Houston fumbles into touchdowns in the second half. Unfortunately, two other Maryland scoring chances aborted. Loncar missed a field goal attempt inside the 40-yard line of the next-to-last play of the first half. And a long Maryland drive to start the second half died on downs at the Houston one-foot line.
Maryland made it a game with a 35-yard drive late in the third period after Larry Seder recovered a Thomas fumble. Manges hit freshman Eric Sievers with a 17-yard, fourth-down pass to keep the drive alive, then came right back over the middle with an 11-yard pass to Slevers for the touchdown with 1:41 left in the period.
Terp linebacker Brad Carr smashed Blackwell and caused a fourth-period fumble that set up a 30-yard Maryland drive that cut the deficit to 27-21 with 6:14 left. Fullback Tim Wilson leaped over the center of the line for a one-yard scoring plunge on the drive's sixth play.
However, Davis completed a crucial third-down pass and Lennard Coplin kicked a 28-yard field goal with 18 seconds left to ice the game.
The key play in Houston's drive that set up Coplin's field goal originated from the Houston 12-yard line on third and six. Davis faded back to pass, dodged a horde of Terp tacklers and winged a 13-yard completion to Robert Lavergne to keep the vital drive alive.
Almost five minutes remained at the time and the completion kept alive the drive which culminated in a clinching field goal with 18 seconds left.
"I was sitting on top of him when I saw it completed," Campbell said. "He threw it on the way down. I don't know how he got it off."
"If Davis had been tackled," said Claiborne, "anything could have happened. They would ave been kicking into the wind."
"As it turned out," Claiborne said, "that was the crucial play. But you've final touchdown they drove 97 yards. got to give Houston credit. On their
Blackwell carved out 149 yards in 22 rushes and Thomas romped for 104 yards in 14 carries as Houston gained 320 yards rushing.
Maryland, the second-ranked total defensive team in the country, had not allowed a touchdown on the ground in 22 quarters until Houston's first-period blitz.
The estimated crowd of 58,500 was the lowest attendance for a Cotton Bowl game since 1946, according to a Cotton Bowl Official.
Manges completed 17 of 32 passes for 179 yards as the terps continuously drove up and down the field.
Two big defensive plays by Houston's Mohr, blocking Sochko's punt and recovering a fumble by Manges, earned him the most valuable defensive player of the game award.
Blackwell, the 5-foot-11, 186-pounder from Cureo, Tex., was named the most valuable offensive player.
Claiborne said the Maryland kicking game broke down in the first half, noting, "In addition to the blocked kick, we missed two chip-shot field goals."
"But we were missing tackles that we don't usually miss and we were missing assignments," he added. "Maybe we were too anxious."
Claiborne, who has seen the Terps lose three bowl games in four years, said he still thought victory was possible when Houston led 27-7 at halftime.
"We made a few adjustments at halftime," he said. "But the main thing was that we played more aggressively. I told the players I was proud of the way they came back. We lost the game but we weren't defeated."