On October 25th, 1980 SMU traveled down to Austin to take on the No. 2 Texas Longhorns before a national television audience on ESPN. The game marked the 60th meeting between the two teams, a series that began in 1916 in Dallas. Texas had won the last 13 games in the series. The Mustangs were 12-point underdogs, coming off of 2 straight conference losses. Texas was poised to make a run at the national championship. SMU coach Ron Meyer made a bold move by changing starting quarterbacks the week of the game. Lance McIlhenny, a 19-year old freshman from Highland Park, was asked to step in and replace All-American Mike Ford and make his first college start against the powerful Texas Longhorns. McIlhenny lifted SMU to a stunning upset and began an era simply known as the Pony Express in of the 90 Greatest Moments in SMU Football History.
SMU was a team at the crossroads. They could not afford a third straight loss if they hoped to receive an invitation to a major bowl. McIlhenny had never started a varsity game and was facing the longest possible odds as he came in to run the offense. But he performed with confidence and poise beyond his age and experience.
This was intended to be a special day for Longhorn fans. This was Bevo's birthday, and the fans even took time to sing him happy birthday at the end of the first quarter. But the Mustangs never let the Longhorns celebrate. SMU frustrated the Texas offense all day, holding them to two field goals. Texas went in to halftime leading 6-3, but what the Longhorns did not know was that the Pony Express was about to break through.
The third quarter belonged completely to the Mustangs. With 2:29 left in the third quarter, McIlhenny ran an option play to his right and made a perfectly-timed pitch to his tailback, Craig James. James followed clearing blocks from fullback Charles Drayton and tight end Clement Fox and raced untouched 53 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.
From that point, the Mustang defense kept the Texas offense backed up deep in its own territory. Early in the fourth quarter, cornerback James Mobley intercepted a Donnie Little pass and returned it 22 yards for a touchdown, extending the lead to 20-6. Texas coach Fred Akers benched Little in favor of Rick McIvor in hopes of leading a comeback. McIvor drove the Longhorns to the SMU 3.
The Longhorn faithful, aroused for the first time since the opening half, smelled a touchdown and a comeback. On third down and inches, Texas called a play they had depended on all year, a halfback dive over right tackle. McIvor handed off to halfback Darryl Clark sweeping right. But before he could turn up field, strong safety Blaine Smith hit Clark, and cornerback Dick Blaylock brought him down at the 9 for a loss of six. On fourth down, McIvor's pass to the end zone fell incomplete, and the Mustangs took over. The upset was assured.
SMU finished the season 8-3, earning a trip to the Holiday Bowl against BYU. This season also saw the Mustangs achieve their first national ranking since 1968 at No. 20. Lance McIlhenny went on to become the winningest quarterback in the history of SMU and the Southwest Conference. It all started with the birth of the Pony Express against Texas in 1980. The upset of No. 2 Texas in Austin takes its rightful place as one of the 90 Greatest Moments in SMU Football History.