On January 1st, 1983, the SMU Mustangs and the Pittsburgh Panthers squared off in the 47th Cotton Bowl Classic. SMU was playing in its first Cotton Bowl since New Year's Eve 1966, when they fell to the Georgia Bulldogs, 24-9. On this day, however, the Mustangs would emerge victorious thanks to an option quarterback from Highland Park named Lance McIlhenny. McIlhenny ran the option to perfection as he scored the game's only touchdown to give SMU a 7-3 victory in one of the 90 Greatest Moments in SMU Football History.
Over the course of two seasons, the Mustangs had compiled a 20-1-1 record and back-to-back Southwest Conference championships. The Panthers were also one of college football's winningest programs. In four seasons, they had rolled up 42 victories and just five losses. Together, these two teams combined for a .906 winning percentage. This was truly a clash of two titans.
The first half ended with the score tied at zero, making it the first time that neither team had scored in the first half since 1961. Pitt broke the scoreless tie when Eric Schubert hit a 43-field goal in the third quarter. And thus SMU, which outscored its opponents, 116-57, in the fourth quarter, was going to have to get only one touchdown in the last period to overcome Pitts' 3-0 lead. As the fourth quarter began, Lance McIlhenny proved he could go deep. First McIlhenny connected with his Miracle Man, sophomore split end Bobby Leach, for a 20-yard gain to the SMU 49. The Ponies then called their split-end reverse, for the first time all year, but Leach was nailed for an 11-yard loss by safety Dan Short and end Chris Doleman. Now facing second-and-21 from his 38, McIlhenny faked a handoff, went back and let fly for Leach running a streak down the right sideline with left cornerback Troy Hill. Leach ran around the back judge, screening Hill from the ball, then made an over-the-shoulder catch at the Pitt 20 for a 42-yard gain.
McIlhenny then decided to go back to the ground game deep in Panther territory. On third-and-1 from the 11, McIlhenny pitched left to Craig James, who got a first down at the nine and would have scored had he not slipped trying to cut inside free safety Tom Flynn. The stage was set for McIlhenny to run into Mustang history. On the next play, McIlhenny ran the option out of Collins' power-I - the same play on which he scored the TD against Arkansas that clinched the Southwest Conference championship.
McIlhenny faked up the middle to Eric Dickerson, faked the pitch right to James, cut inside and ran out of linebacker Yogi Jones' arm tackle at the four to score standing up. Jeff Harrell converted, and the Ponies had a 7-3 lead with 13:43 left in the game. The Mustang defense went on to preserve the win.
On this day, the best quarterback on the field was not the highly publicized Dan Marino. The Cotton Bowl belonged to Lance McIlhenny. The feisty junior quarterback completed five of eight passes for 101 yards, and executed the Mustang offense brilliantly. McIlhenny had the superior NCAA pass-efficiency ranking during the season, 133.7 compared to Marino's 118.2. And though McIlhenny took a beating early, he was the architect of the game's only touchdown.
After the game, SMU coach Bobby Collins was asked where he thought the Mustangs should be ranked nationally. "As far as I'm concerned, this is the No. 1 team in the nation," Collins said. "They seem to play best when things are not going that well. We do what we have to do. How else can you judge a team than from what they do?" SMU ended up being ranked No. 2 in the final AP poll behind Penn State. Nevertheless, 1982 was a magical season for the Mustangs. The Pony Express finished the season undefeated thanks to the running of McIlhenny during one of the 90 Greatest Moments in SMU Football History.