November 20, 2000
A Night to Remember
by Ric Sweeney
vs. Miami (November 20, 1978)
Site: The Astrodome
Records: Dolphins (8-3); Oilers (7-4)
The Oilers had a problem. Earlier in the week, RB Rob Carpenter had undergone surgery on his torn ACL which would shelve him for the remainder of the season. He joined fellow running back Ronnie Coleman on the injured reserve list, leaving just Earl Campbell to do battle against the Miami Dolphins in a key Monday Night Football showdown in week 12.
Turns out, Campbell was all Houston would need.
On a night forever etched onto the forefront of Oiler memories, the nation watched Campbell lead a previously woebegone franchise to gridiron Nirvana. With Houston’s thrilling 35-30 victory, Luv Ya Blue ceased being a catchphrase and became a way of life for 50,290 pom-pom waving fanatics and the city they called home.
The night got off to a rocky start, however.
Hoping to calm the college-like atmosphere, the Dolphins marched to an early score, led by RB Delvin Williams and QB Bob Griese. Williams, who began the night atop the NFL’s rushing leaders, rumbled for 12 and 19 yards on two of his first three carries, moving the Dolphins deep into Oiler territory. The drive then seemingly stalled at Houston’s 5-yard line but Elvin Bethea’s offsides negated Miami’s failed third down attempt. Taking advantage of his second chance, Griese hit Nat Moore for the 10-yard touchdown.
Houston managed to find the end zone late in the quarter as Dan Pastorini engineered a nine-play, 70-yard drive culminating in Campbell’s first score, a one-yard leap that tied the game, 7-7. On the drive, Pastorini hit TE Mike Barber twice, once on third-and-3, to keep the drive alive. Barber and Pastorini would hook up again early in the second quarter on a 15-yard touchdown pass, pushing Houston ahead, 14-7. The drive began after the Oilers recovered a fumbled Miami punt return and was helped by CB Norris Thomas’ 36-yard pass interference.
But back came the Dolphins.
Griese expertly ran the first half clock down while dissecting the Oilers’ defense, completing 4-of-5 passes before handing off to Williams for the 1-yard score. The teams ended the entertaining half tied at 14. Between them, Miami and Houston had rolled up 335 total yards and 23 first downs in a preview of the offensive fireworks that would go off in the second half, beginning with the opening kickoff.
Larry Poole returned Miami’s kick 31 yards and the Oilers were off. Campbell rambled 9 yards on second-and-seven to cross the 1,000-yard plateau for the season and ended the drive with a 6-yard scamper for his second score of the night. Less than four minutes into the second half, Houston had regained the lead, 21-14. Miami would answer, but not before Houston squandered two chances to put the game away.
First, S Mike Reinfeldt recovered RB Leroy Harris’ fumble but the Oilers’ offense could do nothing with the unexpected gift. On Miami’s next offensive series, LB Robert Brazile stuffed Harris for a 3-yard loss setting up a third-and-13 at Miami’s own four. But Williams turned a reverse into a 23-yard jaunt, wiping out the third down and giving Griese the breathing room he needed. The two-time Super Bowl champion hit Moore on a 47-yard post route to put Miami at the Oilers’ 12. Harris then made up for his fumble by scoring from a yard out to even the score again with just over five minutes remaining in the quarter, 21-21. For three quarters, the two playoff-bound teams had stood toe-to-toe, face-to-face, and neither had blinked.
The stage was set for a remarkable finish.
After exchanging punts to open the quarter, LB A.J. Duhe sacked Pastorini in the end zone to give Miami’s its first lead since early in the first quarter, 23-21. The lead stood for much of the remainder of the game as the two teams polished their special teams play with more punts. Finally, the Oilers broke through. Campbell led Houston on an 11-play, 80-yard drive that he capped with his third touchdown of the night, a 12-yarder that pushed Houston back in front, 28-23 with under five minutes remaining. But Griese answered and almost shot a hole through the Oilers’ playoff hopes.
Behind more pinpoint passing, Miami marched to the Oilers’ 11-yard line as the city held its collective breath. But with just over three minutes remaining, Griese made his one and only mistake of the night. Looking for Andre Tillman, Griese drilled a pass to the Dolphin tight end but Reinfeldt stepped in front of the bullet and deflected Griese’s strike, which LB Steve Kiner picked off. It ended the Dolphins’ chances but the night was far from over.
Needing to run out the clock to preserve the win, Pastorini gave to Campbell five times. The former Heisman Trophy winner could manage only 12 yards.
Then it happened: with 1:22 remaining, Campbell galloped into immortality.
The eventual Rookie of the Year had carried the ball, and his team, 27 previous times. He was exhausted, running on fumes and the Dolphins’ defense knew it. If they could stop the Tyler Rose one more time, they could give Griese a last-gasp chance to win the game. The crowd rose to its feet and Campbell rose to the occasion.
Taking a Pastorini pitch wide right — his 28th carry of the night, Campbell made the corner and accelerated to the sideline. Two Dolphin defenders gave chase but Earl somehow managed to find a second gear, and the big, bruisng back simpl outran them both. He glided to the end zone and sent the Astrodome crowd into a frenzy. He hadn’t just put the final nail in Miami’s coffin, he had dug its grave, too. The Oilers’ bench, beside itself, ran to congratulate their tired savior.
Barely able to stand, Campbell made his way back to the sidelines amid high fives and back slaps. Bum Phillips, overcome with emotion, did what came natural to the head coach — he kissed Campbell’s cheek in a gesture that seemed to perfectly define the Luv Ya Blue era. Out of breath, with sweat pouring down his face, Campbell managed a faint smile. Fifty thousand fans did more than that as the Dome threatened to collapse under a wall of sound.
Miami would score a late touchdown but it didn’t matter. The game had ended on Campbell’s Herculean 81-yard score, his fourth touchdown of the night.
The Oilers improved to 8-4 and would later beat Miami in a Wild Card rematch in December, 17-9. But that game lacked the fireworks of their memorable Monday Night clash, still considered by many to be the best game in the series’ illustrious history. Pastorini, overshadowed by Campbell, completed 10 of 16 passes for 156 yards and the touchdown to Barber. The Oilers’ offense answered Griese and the Dolphins at every turn, refusing to give in to the wily veteran, who threw for 349 yards on 23 of 33 passes. In fact, were it not for Campbell, the game might be remembered for Griese’s spectacular play. Griese completed passes to eight different receivers and threw two touchdowns. His one interception was a tipped pass.
The Oilers never played in a Super Bowl. But even if they had, they would have been hard-pressed to top their titanic showdown with Miami. Because on that one glorious night, under the glare of the national spotlight, a phenomenon began and a hero was born. It is, without hyperbole and very little debate, the franchise’s brightest moment, the start of an incredible two-a-half year run the likes of which the city has never seen since. Even the Rockets’ magical back-to-back championship runs seemed to lack the intensity of the halcyon Luv Ya Blue days.
Perhaps that’s because no team and its city have ever been so closely entwined. Phillips’ blue collar overachievers mirrored the can-do spirit of a town drowning in black gold. Wearing cowboy hats, snakeskin boots and a genuine “aw shucks” approach, the Oiler players looked and acted just like the citizens that worshipped them. The lines between the two had been removed. And no game better illustrated the symbiotic relationship than the Miami thriller.
Pushing the players to new heights, the crowd tirelessly cheered and shook their Columbia blue-and-white pom-poms. The Oilers, feeding off of the energy, dragged their game to a new level. After nearly two decades of indifference and ineptitude, the Oilers were officially back. The Miami game was the exclamation point. It defined an era.
Campbell, who finished with 199 yards, still credits the Miami game with making his career. He was the brightest star on a magical night, turning in a performance that left everyone who witnessed it in disbelief. He was strong, but also fast; big, yet surprisingly graceful. His incredible talent was on full display for the nation to see. And Campbell handled the acclaim and attention much the way he handled defensive backs, he shrugged it off and kept going.
And on this night, going, and going, and going…
GAME STATS Dolphins Oilers First Downs 27 23 Rushing Yards 127 265 Passing Yards 320 141 Passes 23/33 10/16 Interceptions 2 1 Punts 5/46 4/45 Penalty Yards 96 50
Week 12 Earl Campbell burst onto the national scene with 4 touchdowns. Final Score Houston Oilers 35 Miami Dolphins 30 Game Notes
In the third quarter, Earl Campbell crossed the 1,000 yard plateau, becoming the first Oiler to do so since Hoyle Granger in 1967. Not coincidently, that was also the last year Houston had made the playoffs.
The night began with Miami’s Delvin Williams’ 1,057 yards leading the league in rushing, with Campbell’s 944 yards right behind him. It ended with Campbell ahead for good, 1,143 to 1,130. For the special occasion (it was Houston’s first MNF home game since 1975), Bum Phillips debuted his custom-made, powder blue-and-white anteater boots, which retailed for $400. "I gotta have something fancy," he said. The Dream Season Week Opponent Result 01 @ Oakland 37-22 02 @ Cleveland 16-7 03 NY Jets 26-20 04 @ Cincinnati 30-27 05 Denver 42-14 06 @ New England 28-14 07 @ Buffalo 28-16 08 @ Pittsburgh 24-17 09 Washington 41-17 10 NY Titans 49-13 11 @ New England 26-23 12 Miami 35-30 13 @ Dallas 30-24 14 Pittsburgh 31-6 15 @ San Francisco 10-7 16 @ Baltimore 24-21 17 Bye Week N/A 18 @ Cleveland 24-23 19 @ San Diego 17-14 20 LA Chargers 24-16 RETURN TO THE DREAM SEASON