In the 1983 Cotton Bowl the Pony Express proved why they were the winningest team in the nation in the early 1980s. It was a game with several memorable moments. At this time, we are going to focus on a single moment in the game that obviously made an impact on the outcome. Early in the game, SMU safety Wes Hopkins recovered a Pitt fumble at the SMU one yard line for one of the 90 Greatest Moments in SMU Football History.
The game featured two teams that had been ranked in the top 10 every week of the season. Pitt came into the game ranked sixth in country with a 9-2 record. Pitt was the Associated Press preseason No. 1 ranked team and held that spot as late as the first week in November. SMU was ranked fourth in the nation, and one of two undefeated teams in the country; the other being top ranked Georgia.
The game featured a pair of contrasting offensive styles. Pitt relied on their strong-armed quarterback, Dan Marino, to lead one of the most potent offenses in all of football. Marino, and his famed quick release, helped him to be ranked fourth on the NCAA's all-time touchdown passes list. SMU's attack was focused on the ground game featuring Eric Dickerson and Craig James. The Pony Express combined for a total of 8,192 yards and 74 touchdowns during their SMU careers. It appeared that the 1983 Cotton Bowl could be the scene of an offensive explosion.
With the temperature in the upper 30's and a light rain falling at game time, playing conditions were anything but ideal. Accustomed to playing in inclement weather, Pitt appeared to have the advantage in the early going. The Panthers had the game's first threat, on its opening possession, when up-back Rick Dukovich ran 11 yards out of punt formation to the Mustang 27.
On Pitt's next play, Marino hit fullback Joe McCall with a screen pass. McCall then sprinted 26 yards with the ball and what appeared to be a possible touchdown. But when McCall charged into the middle of a stacked defense at the one, he lost the ball just as SMU defensive back Russell Carter and linebacker Gary Moten met him. Safety Wes Hopkins pounced on the loose ball, thwarting Pitt's bid for an early lead.
The heads up play by Wes Hopkins was as crucial as any in the game. Neither team was able to find the end zone by halftime, marking the first scoreless first half in the Cotton Bowl in 22 years. SMU went on to edge the Panthers 7-3 and finished ranked No. 2 in the country. SMU fans will long remember Hopkins' clutch recovery as one of the 90 Greatest Moments in SMU Football History.