January 1, 1988
For the third straight year, Miami and Oklahoma were both ranked in the top three heading into the bowl games. This time, Jimmy Johnson's undefeated and second-ranked Hurricanes faced off against Barry Switzer's undefeated and #1 Sooners, a match up of the two winningest programs over the last four years. It would be the 23rd game in college football history featuring #1 vs. #2, and the eighth time in a bowl, including the second straight involving Miami. Indicative of such past success, each team featured loads of experience and senior talent, as both could offer about a dozen prospective players for the next NFL draft, and the setting was the 54th Orange Bowl Classic.
Making their fourth consecutive trip, Oklahoma was playing in a record 16th Orange Bowl, where they had lost only four times. After posting victories in the last two, the Sooners entered the game as the favorite, despite having lost each of the previous two seasons only to Miami, while winning 33 games.
Switzer was seeking his fourth national title, and second in the last three years, and brought with him a team on a roll. Oklahoma (11-0) tore threw the '87 season undefeated, and they were riding a 20-game winning streak. They become the seventh team in NCAA history to lead the nation on both sides of the ball, in scoring offense and scoring defense, but in addition, they became the first school to do it twice with an unprecedented second consecutive year. In the process, the Sooners had five players named to the AP All-American team, matching Army's record set in '45.
Oklahoma owned the nation's best offense, ranking first in total offense (499.7 yards per game), rushing (428.8) and scoring (43.5 points per game). Directing the troops would be freshman quarterback Charles Thompson, who had preformed admirably stepping in for the injured Jamelle Holieway and won the last two games, including the big win at Nebraska. He had a stable of speedsters available to flip to in the backfield.
It was an offense that featured a monstrous front line. The trenches were anchored by a pair of consensus All-Americans, 280-pound guard Mark Hutson and tight end Keith Jackson, who at 6'3" and 250 pounds was big enough to bury lineman with his blocking skills on the option, and with his speed was almost un-catchable from behind. With Jackson, it was almost scary to think of what he could have accomplished if he had played in an offense that actually threw the ball, for in his career, he had caught 59 passes for 1,435 yards, an amazing 24.3 yard average, and collected 14 touchdowns. If that were not enough, 305-pound tackle Greg Johnson, fellow tackle Anthony Phillips and center Bob Latham were all also named to the Big Eight's All-conference team.
Probably more impressively, the Sooners might even have been better on the other side of the ball. Again boasting the best defense in the country, Oklahoma ranked number one in total defense (208 yards per game) and passing defense (102.4). For the second straight year, they also led in scoring defense, allowing only 7.5 points per game, and had permitted only seven touchdowns all year, four on the ground and three through the air. It was led by three All-Americans, end Darrell Reed, the second four-time all-conference player in the school's history, and consensus choices linebacker Dante Jones and safety Rickey Dixon, who was also awarded Jim Thorpe Trophy for best defensive back. Supporting their efforts was safety David Vickers, named All-Big Eight again.
Johnson, once an assistant with Switzer at Oklahoma for three years in the early '70's, was in his fourth year at the helm with Miami, coming off a second consecutive undefeated regular season, running their steak to 32 consecutive regular season wins, and owned a 40-8 record. But he had worn a "can't-win-the-big-one" tag, having lost three straight bowl games. The previous two, a convincing loss against #8 Tennessee when Miami was ranked #2 in the '86 Sugar Bowl and the painful near-miss against #2 Penn State when Miami was #1 in the '87 Fiesta Bowl, each cost the Hurricanes a national championship.
For '87, Miami had lost half a dozen players to the NFL, including Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Vinny Testaverde, the league's overall top pick, running back Alonzo Highsmith, and defensive tackle Jerome Brown, all taken in the first nine picks. But the talent cupboard was far from bare, and after the frustration and disappointment of what could have been, the Hurricanes set out more determined than ever.
Ranked tenth in the AP pre-season poll, first came blowout wins over rival #20 Florida and #10 Arkansas, the Razorbacks' worst defeat ever in Little Rock, moving Miami to #3 in the poll behind Oklahoma and Nebraska. Then came the classic come from behind 26-25 victory over #4 Florida State in Tallahassee, one of the best games of the year, before the Hurricanes breezed through their schedule and finished with a 24-0 win over #10 Notre Dame and surviving a scare in their finale against #8 South Carolina, 20-16. They also entered the championship game with an unblemished 11-0 record during the regular season, having beaten five different ranked teams. But they were also an arrogant, cocky and trash-talking group that seemed to back all the bravado up with their play on the field.
The Hurricanes were averaging 35.6 points per game, fifth best in the nation. Guiding the offense was skinny sophomore quarterback Steve Walsh, who ably answered questions about his ability to succeed Testaverde by passing for over 2,000 yards and 18 touchdowns. Helping was exciting fullback Melvin Bratton in the backfield and a trio of dangerous game-breaking receivers in seniors Brian Blades, Michael Irvin and Brett Perryman.
Their underrated and swarming defense was led by a pair of senior All-Americans, superstar end Daniel Stubbs and ball hawk corner Bennie Blades, had allowed an average of just ten points per game. But they would also be playing without offensive tackle John O'Neill and star senior middle linebacker George Mira, Jr., Miami's all-time leader in tackles, both who of whom had flunked pre-game drug tests and were ineligible to play, ala Oklahoma's Brian Bosworth a year earlier. Bernard Clark would replace Mira.
But Johnson and the Hurricanes had a few things going for them. First, using his profound knowledge of defending the wishbone and with one of the top aerial attacks in the nation, he was the only coach to have beaten Oklahoma in the last two years. Second, the last three times the top two teams in the AP poll had met, the team ranked #2 had won. And finally, they were playing on a field where they normally played their regular season games, so it basically amounted to a home game for the Hurricanes.
In front of a frenzied capacity crowd of 74,760, Miami was looking to take advantage of its hometown atmosphere as their first possession started at the 35. Behind a reconstructed offensive line because of injury and suspension, with three players in new positions, they employed the type of play that has made Miami what they are. They marched right down the field against the decorated Sooners' defense.
Faced with a third down and nine at the Oklahoma 44, Walsh threw to Irvin for a 14-yard gain. On the next play, with a Sooner lineman hurrying to get off the field in favor of an extra defensive back, Walsh recognized the situation and seized the opportunity. Bratton came out of the backfield, and got behind cornerback Derrick White on the left side, and Walsh looped a pass up over the defender's head that Bratton grabbed with his fingertips to put Miami on the board. Greg Cox kicked the extra point, and it was 7-0 not even 3 ½ minutes into the game. It was a proper recipe, as Miami, who wanted an early lead, was now in a position to put defensive pressure on a methodical wishbone offense.
It was Oklahoma's turn to target what they felt was a potentially weak area in the Hurricanes' defense. They tried to power their way up the middle with fullback Lydell Carr, similar to what they had done two years earlier to Penn State, but they were limited by their own weakness. Carr, was playing for the first time since he sprained a knee on November 7th, and his limited effectiveness resulted in more frequent runs to the outside, where the fast and brutal Miami defense harassed Thompson. As such, Oklahoma's junior Todd Thomsen, who had to punt only 36 times in their 11 regular season games, had to come on in each of the Sooners' first four possessions.
Miami held on to their seven-point lead by playing conservative football, however, Dixon caught an overthrown Walsh pass and slashed his way to the Miami 45 with five minutes left in the half. The Sooners set about to capitalize on their fifth possession, and it took them 15 plays to travel those difficult 45 yards. Finally, they broke through when halfback Anthony Stafford went over from a yard out with just nine seconds left in the half, temporarily reducing the noise from the passionate crowd. R.D. Lashar kicked the extra point, and despite the different game plans, both the Sooners and the 'Canes went into the locker room knotted at seven.
Johnson did not let the tight game and tension affect his gambling nature. On their first possession of the second half, Miami's seemingly uneventful drive stalled at the Oklahoma 39, and they lined up for a 56-yard field goal attempt by Cox, which would be the longest of his career. With the punter, Jeff Feagles, kneeling as the holder, thousands of skeptics awaited a trick play. But Feagles stayed on his right knee to take the snap, and Cox stepped forward with a booming kick that cleared the crossbar with plenty of room to spare. It set an Orange Bowl record, but it achieved even more by putting the Hurricanes on top, 10-7 with a little over six minutes gone in the period.
One Oklahoma punt later, Miami started a suffocating 12-play drive. Included was Johnson's fourth down-and-four call at the Sooner 29 that resulted in a great catch by Bratton on a six-yard out pattern to pick up the new set of downs. The march was culminated by Irvin's 23-yard touchdown reception, which put the Hurricanes up, 17-7.
On the next Oklahoma possession, Thompson completed a third down pass inside the Miami 30 for more than enough yardage to gain a first down, but Jackson fumbled the ball away, stripped by safety Selwyn Brown, and teammate Randy Shannon recovered at the Miami 23. It seemed to deflate the Sooners, and the Hurricane defense continued to dominate well into the final period. Late in the game, Cox kicked another impressive field goal, this one from 48 yards out, to pad Miami's lead at 20-7.
With just over a few minutes in the game, and with the Miami sidelines standing around congratulating each other for completely controlling the game, it was here that the Sooners pulled the famous "fumblerooskie" from the Miami 29-yard line. It was a trick play that involved the center intentionally leaving the ball on the ground for an offensive guard to pick up, all while the triple option went through their paces in the opposite direction. It was a devious ploy, as Hutson picked up the pigskin off the grass and ran away from the flow, sidestepped a defender up field and rambled in for a touchdown. Lashar's kick cut the lead to six points, 20-14, with 2:05 left in the game.
But the gimmick was not enough, and Miami's Leonard Conley recovered the ensuing onside kick. However, Oklahoma got the ball back with about 56 seconds remaining, but they were out of timeouts. Miami's defense immediately forced a Thompson fumble, and Clark's recovery erased any chance of "Sooner Magic".
There could be no doubt, as Miami snapped Oklahoma's wishbone in a surprisingly one-sided Orange Bowl, winning convincingly, 20-14. It earned the school their second national championship in the past five years, and possibly signaled a shift in college football's landscape. Johnson surely had Switzer's number, the only three Oklahoma losses among the last three years and 36 games. But for Johnson, it finally provided the acclaim he deserved, finally lifting the large shadow cast by former coach Howard Schnellenberger, who was in attendance doing commentary, and his '83 national champions.
Soon after, the winning coach, his usually perfect hair matted, rode on the shoulders of his players and pumped his two fists toward the night sky again and again. Later, he said, "When people throw stones at our football team, whether it has been at me or others, we all hurt. And they've been hurt for the last three or four years, like I've been hurt for the last three or four years. This makes the hurt a little better than it was three hours ago."
Unable to solve the Oklahoma defense via the ground, Walsh picked apart the Sooners' secondary, completing 18 of 30 passes for 208 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while tossing just one interception. Bratton was on the receiving end of nine passes for 102 yards and a touchdown before leaving in the fourth quarter with a knee injury. Miami also tied an Orange Bowl record by not fumbling the ball at all, done only once by Mississippi State 51 years earlier.
Defensively, Mira's replacement Clark turned in a 14-tackle performance to garner the Most Valuable Player award. It was Clark who took away the quick fullback burst in Oklahoma's wishbone, and caused all kinds of havoc, limiting the Sooners to just 255 yards in total offense, barely half their average.
Thompson, who had been brilliant in the Sooners' huge defeat of Nebraska, was held to 29 yards on 19 carries, and was a terrible four of 12 for only 56 yards when forced to pass. He wasn't alone, as Carr gained only 38 yards on 16 carries, Patrick Collins picked up 50 on ten carries, and Stafford only 33 on just eight attempts.
Meanwhile, the loss deprived Switzer of a fourth national championship, and could be added to his long list of "near-misses". Included were bowl losses following the '77, '84 and now '87 seasons, when a victory would have crowned Oklahoma as national champions in at least two of those years, and the controversial '84 season involved a likely title over undefeated and untested BYU. Without even taking into account his 10-0-1 record and #3 final ranking in his rookie season, but add in the late season loss to Nebraska in '78 and mid-season loss to Miami in '86, both when the Sooners were ranked #1, and stretching a bit with a mid-season loss to Texas in '79 when they were #3, and Switzer could well have been looking at possibly upwards of an unbelievable eight or nine national titles, a level of competitiveness unmatched by any other school in any other era, let alone in his 15-year career.
For the Oklahoma seniors, they finished their collegiate careers with one of the more successful stints in Norman. They had gone 42-5-1, the best mark of any school during the period, and swept four Big Eight titles with a 27-1 record in conference play, as the lone loss came to Kansas in '84. The only other setbacks had come to Washington in the '85 Orange Bowl, and three disappointing losses to Miami, whose 41-8 record over the last four seasons trailed only the Sooners.
Source: Jeff Linkowski