In the first quarter, Notre Dame scored the first 12 points of the game, but Houston scored a touchdown off a turnover. Aided by the direction of the wind, Houston gained the lead in the second quarter and led 20–12 at halftime. When the teams returned to the field to start the second half, Joe Montana remained in the locker room.
During the game, Montana's body temperature had dipped to 96 degrees and he had to fight off hypothermia. He was forced to retire to the locker room where the ND medical staff warmed Montana by feeding him chicken bouillon, and by covering him with warm blankets.
By the fourth quarter, Houston had built a 34–12 lead over Notre Dame. Montana returned to the field with 7:37 remaining on the game clock and was cheered actively by the Notre Dame fans. In the final seconds of the game, Notre Dame was behind, but had possession of the ball. With six seconds left, Montana threw the ball out of bounds, which stopped the game clock and just two seconds remained.
The final play was a touchdown pass to receiver Kris Haines as the clock reached zero. Placekicker Joe Unis was forced to kick the extra point twice after a Notre Dame penalty, but was successful both times, and Notre Dame won the game 35–34.
A strong wind from the north impacted both the temperature and the outcome of the game; all but seven of the game's 69 combined points were scored by the team defending the north end zone.
The game is one of the most notable games in Montana's entire football career. It was his final game for Notre Dame and helped to reinforce his image with football fans as "The Comeback Kid". Six months after the game, Notre Dame put out a promotional film called Seven and a Half Minutes to Destiny. Dan Devine, Notre Dame's head coach, called the movie a "Joe Montana film".
The game has become recognized as one of the most important in the history of college bowl games.