Next came Marc Wilson (1977-79), now starting for Oakland. Another All-America, he twice led BYU to the passing title and finished third in the Heisman balloting in 1979.
McMahon arrived on campus in 1977. That season Nielsen went out with an injured knee in the fourth game, and Wilson became an instant star. As a sub, McMahon threw only 16 passes, completing 10 for 103 yards and one touchdown. Mostly he punted.
The following fall Wilson was injured in BYU's third game, against Colorado State. McMahon came in and completed seven of nine passes for 122 yards and a touchdown as the Cougars won 32-6. Three games later he came off the bench again to lead a BYU comeback against Oregon. He started six of the last seven games in a 13-, count 'em, game season.
With Wilson healthy again in 1979, McMahon was redshirted. "I hated it then," he says. "But now I'm glad I stuck it out." The decision to hold McMahon out a year proved to be a sound one. Wilson led the nation in passing yardage, and BYU went 11-0 before losing 38-37 to Indiana in the Holiday Bowl. And McMahon had two seasons to play.
McMahon finally took over as top gun last year, setting 32 NCAA passing or total-offense records as Brigham Young—the nation's leader in passing yardage per game for the fourth time in five years—went 11-1 and beat SMU 46-45 in the Holiday Bowl, after trailing by 21 with four minutes to play.
"During the season I never thought about the records," McMahon says. "They just kept coming without my thinking about what was going on. It wasn't until I had a chance to look back that I realized it was an amazing year. I just hope I get to keep some of them." Finishing fifth in the '80 Heisman chase, McMahon was a first-team Coaches' All-America and a UPI and AP second-team selection.
This season McMahon took up where he had left off. Then, in the fourth game, against Colorado, he beat a safety blitz with a jump pass but was hit as he came down. The result: a hyperextended left knee. He returned two games later wearing a Lenox Hill derotational brace, the kind that gave Joe Namath a few additional seasons with the Jets and Rams, and resumed the aerial barrage.
Agility had long been one of McMahon's strengths. "He reminds you a lot of Fran Tarkenton, except that he is more accurate," says Gil Brandt, vice-president of personnel development for the Dallas Cowboys. "He's more accurate than Bob Griese was in college."
For a while, the knee injury restricted McMahon's movement, but it didn't affect his arm or his ability to call just the right audible in the face of any defense a team concocted for him. "And he's seen them all," says Edwards. "Everything from nine men in the secondary to a student-body blitz. Nothing seems to shake him. He's amazing. He'll go to the line, read the defense, and if he doesn't feel the play I sent in will work, he'll check off to a better one. Some games he does it as often as 60 percent."
Going into the Utah game, McMahon needed two touchdown passes to break Joe Adams' NCAA career record (set in 1977-80 at Tennessee State) of 81, and 218 yards to exceed Mark Herrmann's 9,188 yards over four years at Purdue (1977-80). Operating behind an outstanding line that spends 80% of its practice time fending off the pass rush, McMahon went right to work. Within 18 minutes he had thrown for 234 yards, thus surpassing Herrmann. With 2:02 to go in the first half he erased Adams' record, too, with a six-yard scoring pitch to Tight End David Mills. For his first TD pass, McMahon had thrown eight yards to Tight End Gordon Hudson, who would catch two more scoring tosses in BYU's 56-28 romp. In all, McMahon completed 35 of 54 passes for 565 yards and four TDs. It was an exceptional day: 12 more NCAA records were his. Actually, he set 13, but he had held one himself. His career total: 60 passing or total offense records and a tie for another.