Hollywood couldn’t have found a better script than the one provided by the 1987 Fiesta Bowl.
Dubbed “The Game of the Century,” you can get the entire game, right now, on Netflix. In fact, everything from the NBC broadcast is still included, without commercials. The halftime interview with Ronald Reagan is still there as well … as is Tom Brokaw talking about snowfalls and hotel fires.
Even the commentators were in awe at the possibility of having #1 versus #2 for a national championship. I guess the more things change, the more they stay exactly the same.
The 1987 Fiesta Bowl was more than just another bowl game. It would pit the top two teams in the country, both independents who were free of automatic bowl tie-ins. That allowed the Fiesta Bowl, then just another annual bowl with larger aspirations, to place the the top teams together.
It was before the Big Ten. It was before the ACC. It was Penn State versus Miami.
The two programs were farther apart than just a 1,500 mile driving distance too. Miami, with all their trouble-makers and arrogance; and Penn State, with their old-world head coach and blue-collar, modest football. And neither team failed to live up to their reputations.
Miami’s camo-fatigue parade is the stuff of legend today. They were coming into the desert to prove this Penn State team didn’t belong on the same field as them. And why should they? Miami was loaded with talent and were coached by a man who would go on to become one of only three people to win the national title as well as a Super Bowl (Jimmie Johnson). Many people picked them to blow Penn State completely off the field. You’d be hard-pressed to think any other way.
Under center for the Canes was the much heralded Heisman Trophy winner, Vinny Testeverde. He had reason to be as arrogant, and he was. He was the third straight Miami quarterback in their great QB lineage. Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar and now Testeverde.
In the backfield was future Houston Oiler Alonzo Highsmith, a dual-threat RB who was quite effective as a pass catcher. Going into the game, Michael Irvin had 11 TD catches on the season, and he made sure you knew about all 11, too, as he sprinted up and down the field with his finger in the air all season.
Defensively, the speed up front was serious. The secondary yielded two names everyone knows: Bennie Blades and current Miami Hurricane head coach Randy Shannon. The Hurricanes were loaded.
There was only one thing everyone overlooked when placing their bets for this contest: Penn State, even then, had a history of beating Heisman winners. They did it with defense.
By today’s standards, there’s only one name on that Fiesta Bowl defense anyone knows outside of State College, and that’s linebacker Shane Conlan. But this unit, like every Penn State defense before and after, wasn’t comprised of five-star talent. It was comprised of kids who just knew how to play football.
On offense, it was much the same for the Lions. The quarterback was John Shaffer, and he gave a performance as memorable as his name. The Nittany Lion backfield was a little more productive, with school greats D.J. Dozier and Blair Thomas.
The stage was set in Tempe. Two teams who were miles apart, two coaches who were miles apart, two locales that couldn’t be anymore different.
The game started the way those critics expected. The Miami defense was in Shaffer’s grill almost every play, and the Lion offense looked like virtually every PSU offense since: ineffective. Testeverde started the game as the player everyone had penciled as. Extremely confident in the pocket, making nice throws and clearly proving to be the best player on the field.
But the Penn State defense also came to play. With an effort that exceeded 100%, against a team much better than them, the Nittany Lions played out of their minds. Play after play, the Miami receivers were getting hammered when catching passes. Undersized CB Duffy Cobbs, another guy virtually forgotten today, had the game of his career. Cobbs ended the day with multiple tackles, multiple hits, a first quarter interception and a fumble recovery.
At the end of the first quarter, Shaffer was only 1-for-5 with three yards.
On a play across the middle, Irvin was crushed and coughed up the football. This was one of many, many mistakes by the Miami WR’s that kept Penn State close. It started to wear on Testeverde. The future NFL’er was then greeted with confusing linebacker coverage that began to tear away his confidence. He started looking human out there after all, making mistakes, and quickly. At the end of the day, he would have no touchdowns and five interceptions.
Penn State, thanks in large part to the offensive mistakes made by the Hurricanes, were still in a position to potentially win the game. However, Miami continued to find ways to get first downs. Time was running out for Penn State, and despite Dozier’s toughness, the PSU faithful felt much better when the defense was on the field. That defense came up in a huge way when the All-American Conlan made an acrobatic catch and ran it back 36 yards before being tripped at the five-yard-line. Dozier blasted into the end zone and the Lions took a 14-10 lead.
Testeverde had one final chance, and he kept getting enough yardage to push forward. It came down to third down from the Penn State four-yard-line, when Testeverde took a demoralizing sack. It boiled down to a fourth down play with a national championship on the line … and Testeverde couldn’t come through. He was confused by the coverage and was picked off by LB Pete Giftopolous, giving the Nittany Lions the title. There’s a handful of plays that spell out Penn State’s great football history and that pick by Giftopolous was definitely one of them. A kid forgotten except in the hearts of those in Happy Valley, could quite possibly have provided the mission statement for Penn State football with that play.
Penn State won a national title despite being outgained 445 yards to 162. Shaffer’s miserable performance was still enough to win the big one. Shaffer’s career record as a starting QB since the seventh grade? … 67-1.
It’ll go down as one of the greatest national championship games ever played, and that’s why we give it some Old School Love today!