One would be hard pressed to point to a game that featured two teams that were more polar opposites of each other.
On one team the players came from some of the toughest neighborhoods of the inner cities of south Florida. The players on the other team came mostly from the blue collar mining towns of western Pennsylvania.
One team had a flashy All-American quarterback that won the Heisman and Maxwell Awards. He led a flashy offense that averaged nearly 40 points per game and showed little mercy in running up the score. The other team featured a grind-it-out rushing offense that scored just enough points to get by. Their quarterback didn't have an impressive arm or eye popping stats. Even his name was boring.
One team had a legendary coach whose respect for opponents won him the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year Award. He believed in the principles of loyalty, honor, and discipline. The other team had a coach that let his players run wild doing whatever they wanted to do. He saw no need for respecting his opponent, mockingly referring to his counterpart on the other team as "St. Joe."
The 1986 Miami Hurricanes were the most dominant team in college football. Their roster was full of players like Vinnie Testaverde, Michael Irvin, Alonzo Highsmith, Jerome Brown, Brett Perriman, Brian Blades, and Benny Blades who would go on to play in the NFL. They stormed through their schedule like, well, a hurricane obliterating everything in their path. They averaged 38 points per game while only giving up 12.
The Penn State Nittany Lions were a workman-like team. They won ugly with solid defense and a ball-control offense. They barely got past teams like Maryland, Cincinnati, and Notre Dame that all had losing records leading many people to question if they were a worthy opponent for the mighty Hurricanes. As soon as the matchup was announced for the Fiesta Bowl, the betting opened in Vegas with Penn State being listed as a seven point underdog. So confident was Miami of their impending victory, that clothing apparel stores in Miami were selling "Miami Hurricanes 1986 National Champions" T-shirts before the game.
When the Miami players arrived in Tempe they shocked everyone by getting off the plane dressed in combat fatigues. When asked about it, team leader Jerome Brown said, "This is war." Head coach Jimmy Johnson told the Phoenix Gazette, "That was a great idea. I wish I had thought of it."
Once on the ground in Tempe, the Miami players quickly became disgusted with what they saw. Penn State fans were everywhere. Not only that, but it seemed like the locals were even pulling for the Nittany Lions. Not surprising considering it was Penn State's fourth appearance in the Fiesta Bowl. Penn State fans were regulars in Tempe and had made quite a favorable impression on the locals. On the flip side, Miami was a small private school without a large alumni following. Most of their fans lived in the low income inner city and didn't have the money to travel across the country to Arizona to see their team play. So there weren't many Miami fans to cheer them on.
All week long the Miami players hated everything about being in Arizona. They hated dealing with stupid questions from the press about their attitudes. They hated Jimmy Johnson's regimented practice schedule sarcastically calling their coach "the Grinch that stole Christmas." They hated being compared to the Penn State choir boys. In one interview Brown said,
"I know a couple guys on (Penn State) are as crazy as I am. It's just a big front, that Penn State is clean cut. When it's time to get down, they get in the dirt. They hit late, we hit late. Of course, we may hit a little later."
Everything came to a head at the joint team dinner the night before the game. For entertainment, the players were allowed to spend the day walking around an Old Western Theme park. Then they were treated to an old west steak fry for their pregame meal. For Hurricane players that grew up in the poorest projects of south Florida, it couldn't be more corny, and by corny, I mean white.
As part of the entertainment for the evening, the teams were asked to come up with little skits to amuse the crowd. The Penn State players, dressed in coats and ties, went first and proceeded to make fun of Jimmy Johnson's hair and the boorish behavior of the Miami players over the past few days. Then Penn State punter John Bruno insulted the Miami players when he made a self deprecating racial joke.
Bruno said Penn State was a family "because the white players let the black players eat at the training table once a week."
When it was Miami's turn to take the stage, Brown ripped off his jumpsuit (the choice of attire for the Miami players that night) exposing his combat fatigues underneath. He grabbed the microphone famously saying,
"Did the Japanese have dinner at Pearl Harbor before they bombed them? Let's go."
And with that, the Miami players stood up and took off their jump suits exposing their fatigues. Then they walked out of the room to the team bus. As the assembled crowd sat in stunned silence, Bruno reached for a microphone and asked, "Excuse me, but didn't the Japanese lose the war?"
Bruno had dropped a bomb of his own that brought down the house. The incident made the national news (the fatigues...but not the racial joke), and from that point on nobody was talking about a football game any more. This was a battle between David and Goliath. It was a competition between class and crass. It was a fight between good and evil. Everyone in America was firmly cheering for Penn State.
By the time the game finally arrived, both teams had had about enough of each other. Joe Paterno gave his players strict orders not to talk back to the Miami players, provoke them, or respond to their verbal or physical assaults in any way. The Miami players, on the other hand, did everything they could to taunt their opponent and get in their heads. During pregame the Hurricanes jogged through Penn State's warmup formations and tried to engage them in verbal confrontations, but the Penn State players listened to their coach and wouldn't have any of it.
When the game started, Miami got off to a fast start. They sacked quarterback John Shaffer driving the Penn State offense backwards. The Hurricanes whooped and danced and the rout was on. Or so they thought.
On Miami's second possession, Irvin went to catch a ball over the middle and Penn State safety Ray Isom leveled him with a vicious hit knocking him silly and forcing him to fumble the ball. Later in the game Isom leveled Brian Blades on a similar play. In What It Means To Be A Nittany Lion, Isom described the hit.
Brian Blades had a brother, Bennie, who was a safety. He was a hard hitter and a talker. When we were on the field, Miami's defense was on the sideline talking. Brian ran the same post pattern that Michael Irvin had run earlier and fumbled after I hit him. The ball was thrown a little high and I didn't go for the ball.
I remember looking to the sideline and telling his brother, "You better come get him, he ain't gettin' up!" Brian rolled over and ran straight to the sideline. I said, "Now you put a Pamper on him and send him back out here." That was the hardest hit I had in that game.
Throughout the rest of the game the Miami wide receivers had short arms when they went over the middle. They dropped seven passes that were perfectly thrown from Testaverde. For all of their efforts to get inside the heads of the Penn State players, it was the Miami Hurricane who psyched themselves out. As Shane Conlan said after the game, "Our little, slow guys back there just rocked 'em, and soon they didn't want to catch the ball. Later on, we were helping their receivers up after we hit them and patting them on their butts. Receivers hate that."
Throughout the game Penn State stymied Testaverde with a defensive plan that was masterly crafted by PSU defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. For most of the evening State dropped eight men back into coverage. Everywhere Testaverde looked he saw a linebacker. Stubbornly, Miami refused to run the ball into Penn State's pass oriented defense. It was almost as if they didn't just want to win the game. They wanted to blow out Penn State just to prove their superiority. It was a foolish act as the Penn State defense forced five interceptions from the Heisman trophy winner.
Miami took a 7-0 lead in the early part of the second quarter after recovering a fumble at the Penn State 23-yard line. Penn State responded immediately with their only sustained drive of the night going 74 yards on 13 plays. Shaffer scored the touchdown when he dived into the endzone on a four yard quarterback bootleg. The first half ended in a 7-7 tie.
The defenses dominated the third quarter and both teams were scoreless. All American Penn State linebacker Shane Conlan had injured his knee badly in the first half and twisted his ankle after intermission. He intercepted a pass in the third quarter and only managed a few steps before his knee gave out and he fell down. He was furious with himself for letting the pain win. He would later have a chance for a rematch.
Miami took over at midfield early in the fourth quarter and moved down the field on a 20-yard run by Highsmith. The drive set up a field goal that gave Miami a 10-7 lead with just under 12 minutes to go in the game. The Penn State offense failed to move on their ensuing possession, and the Hurricanes were beginning to sense the national championship within their grasp as their confidence was visibly starting to grow.
But the Penn State defense wasn't ready to give up just yet. With just under nine minutes to go, Conlan stepped in front of a Testaverde pass and snagged another interception. Once again he fought through the pain of his throbbing knee and ankle, but this time the pain lost. Conlan ran 40 yards down to the Miami 5-yard line where he was brought down. Two plays later D.J. Dozier barrelled over the middle for a six-yard touchdown, and then he took a knee in prayer. Penn State had taken the 14-10 lead, but there were still eight minutes left on the clock. All across America Penn State fans were saying a prayer of their own.
Miami fumbled away the ball on the kickoff, but Penn State was unable to do anything with it and had to punt the ball away. The two teams then traded another round of punts with Bruno pinning the Hurricanes at their own 23-yard line with three minutes to go and timeouts in their pocket.
Miami struggled and faced a 4th-and-6. Testaverde hit Brian Blades on a quick route. PSU cornerback Eddie Johnson went for the interception and missed allowing Blades to gain 41 yards. A few plays later Miami had a 1st-and-goal at the PSU 9-yard line and a minute to go.
On first down Testaverde hit Irvin for a four yard gain. On second down Tim Johnson sacked Testaverde forcing Miami to take a timeout with 25 seconds to go. Third down resulted in an incomplete pass, and with that the 1986 National Championship was about to come down to one play. Timeout was called on the field.
The Penn State defense had a motto they had recited all season: "Somebody make a play." When their backs were against the wall, and there was no more gas left in the tank, someone would call it out. "Somebody make a play." As they stood in the huddle on that cool January night in the Arizona desert, eighteen seconds and one play to go to decide the national championship, the Penn State players looked each other in the eye and called out the challenge. "Somebody make a play."
The teams took the field to decide the game. As Testaverde broke the huddle and approached the line, Conlan called it out again. "Somebody's got to make a play." As Testaverde dropped back to pass, he stared down Perriman in the endzone. The defense converged on him, and Pete Giftopolous stepped in front to make the interception. He scrambled around for a second almost as if he didn't know whether to try to score or run to the sideline to celebrate. His teammates yelled for him to just hit the ground, so he fell to his knees clutching the ball, and the national championship, in his thick bandaged hands.
Penn State had pulled off the miracle in the desert.
(Hat tip the amazing Penn State Football Encylopedia and Gamechangers by Lou Prato and What It Means To Be A Nittany Lion by Lou Prato and Scott Brown from which much of the information from this post and all of the other posts was researched.)