January 1, 1983 saw the SMU Mustangs back in the Cotton Bowl for the first time since the end of the 1966 season. It looked like this Cotton Bowl could be the site of an offensive explosion with two of the most dangerous offenses in the nation facing one another. The Pittsburgh Panthers came in ranked 6th in the country with a 9-2 record. The Mustangs were ranked 4th with a 10-0-1 record. Dan Marino was calling the shots for the Panther attack, while the Pony Express was ready to run wild for SMU. In the end, the fate of SMU's undefeated season lay in the hands of their defense. Thanks to a heads up play by defensive back Blaine Smith, SMU was able to thwart Marino's bid for an upset. Smith's fourth quarter interception in the end zone in the 1983 Cotton Bowl takes its place at No. 27 on our countdown of the 90 Greatest Moments in SMU Football History.
The focus of the 1982 Mustangs was the offense, with the Pony Express grabbing headlines. However, it was a solid defense that helped ensure a second straight Southwest Conference title. The Cotton Bowl gave the entire defense the chance to prove that they could stop one of the best quarterbacks in all of football in Dan Marino. Marino was the most heralded quarterback the University of Pittsburgh had ever known, so they honored him by retiring his jersey during the last game of the 1982 season.
The Mustangs emerged victorious, largely because they shut out Marino. Substituting more than they had all year, the "Nasty Boys," as they were sometimes referred to, flushed Marino out of his passing pocket 11 times with blitzes and second-effort rushes, helped by a secondary that took away Marino's prime targets.
Those 11 crucial plays resulted in seven incomplete passes, one sack by nose guard Michael Carter, two scrambles on which Marino managed negligible yardage and one decisive end-zone interception that ended Pitt's next-to-last drive.
Marino went deep only once all day, and that pass fell incomplete. Thus, Pitt was held to its lowest point total in 89 games, since Navy beat the Panthers, 17-0, in 1975. Marino completed 19 of 37 passes for 181 yards, with no touchdowns and one interception.
Finally in the fourth quarter, SMU's Lance McIlhenny engineered a drive to put the Mustangs on top 7-3. On the ensuing possession, Pitt moved the ball deep into SMU territory looking to retake the lead. Marino moved the Panthers to the SMU 10, converting a fourth-and-3 at the SMU 33 with an 11-yard pass to tailback Bryan Thomas.
The stage was set for a major defensive stand. On first down, Pitt went to the ground for three yards. Then, on second down from the seven, Marino scrambled and overthrew Keith Williams in the left corner of the end zone. And then came the most important defensive play of the game. On third down, Marino was forced to scramble to his right and throw an instant before blitzing linebacker Clarence McDade hit him. Safety Wes Hopkins stepped in front of receiver Dwight Collins and tipped the ball. It appeared that the ball was going to fall to the ground, setting up a fourth and goal situation. However, safety Blaine Smith was in the right spot at the right time and grabbed the ball out of the air. He fell to the ground in the end zone with 8:08 to play holding Pitt's best scoring opportunity in his hands.
Pitt got one final drive at the end of the game, but was never able to really threaten the Mustangs. Following the game, Pitt coach Foge Fazio said, "They play great football down here. SMU and Penn State would be a great football game. I'd better not say who I'd think would win. It really wouldn't matter." What did matter was that SMU had won the Cotton Bowl and finished the season with an 11-0-1 record. Blaine Smith's interception preserved the hard fought win over the Panthers for one of the 90 Greatest Moments in SMU Football History.