This is the second in a series of December installments featuring great New Year's Days of the years gone by. 1987 saw a pair of future Dallas Cowboy coaches square off for the national title. Jimmy Johnson at Miami and Barry Switzer at Oklahoma were paired up in 1 vs. 2 prime-time showdown in the Orange Bowl.
The programs of Big Ten Country were not in the national title picture, but there was plenty of action nonetheless. Penn State, still an eastern independent, kicked off the day in the Citrus Bowl. Today it is known as the Capital One Bowl and traditionally hosts the top non-BCS Big Ten school. At this time it was the host bowl for the ACC champion. It was the 1993 season when the bowl's relationship with the Big Ten began. In 1987 Danny Ford's Clemson Tigers matched up with the Nittany Lions.
Lou Holtz's restoration of the Notre Dame program was well underway in his second season. The Irish won eight games and wide receiver Tim Brown won the Heisman Trophy. ND had finished a down note, losing road games to Penn State & Miami that knocked them out of the national title picture, but they had a chance to close on a good note against SWC champ Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl.
The mid-afternoon slate featured a trio of games. Michigan State won their first outright Big Ten title since 1966. This season saw Michigan and Ohio State disappear from contention early. The Wolverines ended up in the Peach Bowl, and the Buckeyes struggled to a 6-4-1 record that resulted in the firing of head coach Earle Bruce. It was Indiana who jumped up and challenged the Spartans. The two schools squared off in the second-to-last game of the year with first place on the line. Michigan State routed the visiting Hoosiers 27-3 and clinched the trip to Pasadena. Prior to the game, coach George Perles delivered one of the more memorable lines of recent history. He was asked what the atmosphere on campus might be like if his team won. Perles said in a solemn tone--"If we win this game, the odds are pretty good that there'll be a party." He paused briefly. "And the odds are pretty good...that I'll be there." The coach who once put together the NFL's vaunted "Steel Curtain" defense in Pittsburgh in the 1970s would also be in Pasadena today, facing Southern Cal.
There was another unbeaten in the mix besides Miami & OU. The Syracuse Orangeman dethroned Penn State as the top team in the East, in rolling to an 11-0 record. The 'Cuse had minimal hopes of winning it all--only a tie in the Orange Bowl could open the door for them. But a Sugar Bowl date with Auburn gave them a chance to seal a perfect year.
Florida State and Nebraska staged a consolation game in the Fiesta Bowl. Both schools had just one loss--to Miami and OU respectively. The 'Noles lost to Miami 26-25, when a two-point conversion in the final minute failed. In reality, the game was lost earlier, when they'd missed an extra point and made the two-point try necessary. Nebraska hosted the Sooners in what was once the Big Eight's traditional finale. Even with Oklahoma quarterback Jamelle Holloway injured, and homefield advantage on their side, the Huskers still looked inept. After spotting NU a touchdown, Oklahoma rolled to a decisive 17-7 win and the Orange Bowl bid.
Penn State had won the national championship the year before, but this was a different Lion team. In one of Joe Paterno's worst bowl-game performances, Clemson manhandled Penn State 35-10 to kick the day off. Notre Dame suffered a similiar fate, as the underrated Aggies ran circles around the Irish winning by the same score.
1987 was a year when Big Ten failure in the Rose Bowl was still very much alive. Michigan's 1981 win had been the last victory, and you could count on one hand the number of times the conference had won in the previous two decades. Today the Spartans broke the string. In a tense game, MSU quarterback Bobby McAllister made a brilliant play, completing a long pass as he was flying out of bounds on a rollout, that helped set up the winning field goal. When Trojan quarterback Rodney Peete fumbled a snap on a potential game-tying drive, Michigan State had preserved a 20-17 win. The Spartans opened the season by beating USC back in East Lansing. They closed it by beating them in Pasadena.
The Sugar and Fiesta each produced last-minute thrills. Florida State rallied behind quarterback Danny McManus, and a rising defensive star named Deion Sanders to pull out a 31-28 win. Syracuse was clinging to a 16-13 lead, as Auburn drove toward the end zone in the dying moments. With fourth down, just inside the 10-yard line, Tiger coach Pat Dye opted to kick the field goal and play for a tie. The 16-16 final was an anticlimactic finish to an excellent season for the Orange and a great bowl game.
Miami was hungry in primetime. The Hurricanes had lost a potential shot at a national title in 1985 when they were blown out in the Sugar Bowl. In '86 their loss to Penn State in a 1 vs. 2 game in the Fiesta is one of the sport's monumental bowl-game upsets. Playing on their homefield this time, the Hurricanes had to make the third time the charm. And they did. Miami jumped out to an early 7-0 lead, and went to the locker room tied at 7. They seized command in the second half, stretching the lead to 20-7. All season long, the Oklahoma wishbone attack devastated opponents, but Miami's defensive speed was too much for them tonight. The Sooners briefly got back in the game late, on a "fumblerooskie" play, when the quarterback set the ball down on the ground and an offensive lineman scooped it up and ran for a touchdown. But such gimmickry was all OU had left. Barry Switzer was denied, in what would prove to be his last chance at a national championship. Jimmy Johnson had his first. Both men would later coach the Cowboys to a Super Bowl title in the NFL. But tonight belonged to Johnson and Miami.
It was a day of redemption for the Big Ten and lessons learned for Notre Dame. A day of dramatic finishes, and a historic 1 vs. 2 battle. It was the way New Year's used to be.