Winning When It Counts

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November 27, 2000
Winning When It Counts
by Ric Sweeney

at Dallas November 22, 1979
Site: Texas Stadium
Records: Oilers (9-3); Cowboys (8-4)
Attendance: 63,897

During the week, the Oiler players and coaches told anyone who would listen that it was just another game.

They lied.

Never before had the Oilers and Cowboys met with so much at stake. Both teams were battling for playoff position in their respective conferences and would do so under the glare of the NBC cameras. Their week 13 match-up in 1979 fell on Thanksgiving Day, and was broadcast to a nation knee-deep in turkey. 

More importantly, the state’s bragging rights were on the line. Even the annual Texas A&M-Texas tussle took a backseat. And for the first time in franchise history, Houston would be the brightest star in the Lone Star State. And not surprisingly, Earl Campbell would lead the charge though he was far from Houston’s lone star.

First, Campbell and the Oilers had to watch Roger Staubach go to work. The veteran quarterback struck early and often throughout the first half, hitting on 14 of 17 during the game’s first 30 minutes including a 56-yard scoring strike to Drew Pearson on the game’s fourth play. The bomb was just what the Cowboys needed, partly to derail the surging Oilers but also to help boost their sagging confidence.

Despite their swagger and bravado, Dallas entered the game reeling, having dropped two in a row and three of their last four. Another loss would deal a severe blow to their chances of repeating as NFC Champions.

But Campbell answered. On Houston’s third play from scrimmage, the ex-Longhorn rumbled 61 yards to even the score, 7-7. The run was the longest of Campbell’s season.

Back came Staubach. He engineered a 10-play, 79-yard drive that ended when he caught the Oilers in a blitz and dumped a screen pass to Robert Newhouse, who went 21 yards for the tie-breaking score, 14-7. After trading punts, Staubach made his first and only mistake of the half when Vernon Perry intercepted his errant pass, returning it nine yards to the Cowboys’ 44. Seven plays later, Tony Fritsch kicked a 27-yard field goal to help cut into Dallas’ lead, 14-10.

Behind Tony Dorsett, the Cowboys scored again. Texas’ other back ran for 13 and 16 yards, the later coming on a key third-and-1 at the Oilers’ 31 yard line. Dorsett capped the drive with a 1-yard dive, pushing Dallas’ lead to 21-10. 

As would be the case all day, the Oilers would not concede.

Dan Pastorini hit Rich Caster for 29 yards and then converted a third-and-4 by hitting Mike Renfro for 6 yards. Campbell did the rest, scoring his second touchdown, this one from 27 yards out, to once again cut into the Cowboys’ lead, 21-17. The touchdown was Campbell’s 17th of the season, leaving him two shy of the NFL record. 

Not surprisingly, the first-half had been a shootout. Dallas, sporting the league’s number one offense, and Houston, the league’s hottest team with four straight wins, dug in deep for what promised to be an even more remarkable second half.

Campbell began the second half where he had ended the first: running through the Cowboys’ defense. He gained 24 yards on his first four carries, helping Houston move 71 yards on their opening drive. The final 47 came on a Pastorini-to-Renfro strike that actually began as a broken play. Caster had misread Pastorini’s audible and left Renfro in double coverage. Renfro, who grew up in Dallas, ran underneath the coverage and beat Clif Harris and Benny Barnes to the end zone to give the Oilers their first lead, 23-21. Fritsch, who had been so automatic all year, bounced the extra point off the upright. 

It almost came back to haunt them.

The Cowboys reclaimed the lead, 24-23, on the first play of the fourth quarter, a 44-yard field goal from Rafael Septien. After both teams stopped the other, Staubach was again intercepted midway through the final quarter, this time by J.C. Wilson. The turnover led to Houston’s winning points; but first, Dallas had to make a cataclysmic mistake.

Their Doomsday Defense clamped down on the Oilers after the interception and forced a decisive fourth-and-4. Perched at the Cowboys’ 37 yard line and hesitant to give Dallas the ball back in such good field position, Bum Phillips played it safe and sent his punt team onto the field, hoping to pin Staubach and company deep in their own territory. Tom Landry also sent his punt unit onto the field. Plus one.

Dave Stalls, who wasn’t supposed to be, somehow wound up on the coverage team, drawing a flag for being the 12th man on the field and wiping out Clif Parsley’s punt. Given new life, the Oilers quickly took advantage.

On the first play after the penalty, Pastorini correctly read man coverage on Ken Burrough and sent the speedy wide receiver sprinting down field on an audible called at the line of scrimmage. Barnes was unable to keep up with Burrough who got behind the Cowboy cornerback and raced 32 yards for the winning score, 30-24.

But it wasn’t over just yet.

Staubach still had almost half a quarter to try and lead his Cowboys back. And he almost did, breaking into Oiler territory late and hitting Tony Hill  for 16 yards on a clutch fourth-and-4 throw at the Oilers’ 20. Two plays later, Staubach’s strike to Hill sailed just out of reach at the goal line. His fourth down pass also fell incomplete giving the ball back to Houston.

Still needing to run the clock out, and facing a third-and-3 at their own 26, the Oilers pitched to Campbell, who dragged D.D. Lewis across the first down marker to end the Cowboy threat. 

Campbell finished with 195 yards on 33 carries; at the time, his second biggest day as a pro. Pastorini only hit on 9 of 17 for 163 yards but threw two touchdowns and, unlike Staubach, did not throw an interception. Staubach finished 21 of 30 for 287 yards but his two turnovers were costly, leading to 10 Oiler points. Of course, they all would have been rendered moot if Dallas, which prided itself on being the first team to utilize the computer in their scouting and game preparation, had been able to count. Instead, their illegal procedure penalty gave the Oilers a second chance, one they didn’t pass up.

The Oilers, who for a brief three days after the Thursday game, stood atop the NFL with the league’s best record, would eventually go on to lose to Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game. But Houston could take solace in owning one crown in 1979, the one some felt was even more important than the Super Bowl: They were the best team in Texas.

"Let them be America’s Team," Phillips said after the victory. "I’d rather be Texas’ team."

GAME STATS Oilers Cowboys First Downs 17 20 Rushing Yards 224 92 Passing Yards 154 279 Passes 9/17 21/30 Interceptions 0 3 Punts 4/44 3/36 Penalty Yards 45 42

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Week 13 Texas had one lone star on this day. Final Score Houston Oilers 30 Dallas Cowboys 24 Game Notes

This was only the third time the Oilers had played the Cowboys in the regular season. The first two games, in 1970 and 1974, had decidedly different outcomes. Dallas won both by a combined score of 62-10.

The Cowboys’ Doomsday Defense was allowing only 73 rushing yards a game prior to their match-up with Earl Campbell, the NFL’s leading rusher. Campbell finished with 195. Mike Renfro, who was born and raised in Dallas, had been a Cowboys’ ballboy when his dad, Mel, played for Dallas. He celebrated his professional return with 2 catches, including a touchdown. 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