Facing 4th down and 6 from its own 33 with just over 2 minutes remaining in the game, trailing 14-10 in the National Championship, Heisman winning QB Vinny Testaverde completed an out to Brian Blades. Blades broke Eddie Johnson's tackle and sprinted down the sideline, taking the ball inside the Penn State 30 before Ray Isom could force him out of bounds. A pair of completions to Michael Irvin gave the Canes a 1st and Goal from the Penn State 9 yard line, with just 61 seconds on the clock.
On first down Testaverde handed the ball off to Highsmith, who churned his way to the Penn State 6. Shane Conlan's knee gave out, stopping the clock for injury. Vinny hustled to his sideline to plead his case for a pass, while Conlan limped off the field. As play resumed, Vinny took a 3-step drop and had his head nearly pulled off his shoulders by Tim Johnson. The sack, for a loss of 5 yards, forced Miami to burn its final time out. On third down Vinny dropped back again, moved up in the pocket, and bailed out to his right. He tossed the ball to the back corner of the end zone for Brett Perriman, but it sailed out of bounds.
Fourth down. Goal to go. Twenty-five seconds remaining. One play would decide the National Champion.
Vinny gathered the center's snap, looked left for Brett Perriman on a slant route, and fired. Junior linebacker Pete Giftopolous intercepted the ball at the goal line. Pete stumbled forward for a few steps, and then fell down in the fetal position near the PSU 10-yard line. The Penn State bench sprinted onto the field to celebrate. My old man and I jumped, screamed, and shouted. Ecstasy, relief, amazement - all channeled over the air from Tempe, AZ, down an antenna in Waynesboro, PA, into a 13" Zenith in our living room. What an incredible moment.
For the Youthful and Ignorant
The 1987 Fiesta Bowl was far more than Joe Paterno's second official National Championship. It was a landmark event in college football history. Consider the following case facts:
- It was the Sunkist Fiesta Bowl. "Sunkist" - the Florida orange company - became the first ever corporate sponsor of a college bowl game. The 87 Fiesta Bowl was the only bowl game that year with a sponsor's name as part of the title. (You're welcome, BitCoin).
- The game was played on January 2nd - the first time a college bowl game stretched beyond New Year's Day. The following season, every bowl stayed at or behind the January 1 line.
- It featured the consensus #1, undefeated Canes versus the consensus #2, undefeated Lions, with no other teams capable of making a legitimate claim to the title. This was it.
- The matchup was possible because both teams were Independents - unaffiliated with a conference, and possessing sole, legally defensible ownership of their television rights and bowl destination.
- NBC bought the rights, and broadcast the game over the air - no cable subscription required.
- NBC labeled it "The National Championship" on their cut-in and cut-out shots (shown above) - another first.
- According to Wikipedia (insert joke here), the game remains the most watched college football game ever. Ever.
- The Halftime Show was a live, on-air Bob Costas interview of the President of the United States, Ronnie Reagan.
- The game's compared to the Super Bowl - but that's inaccurate. The Super Bowl occurs every year. This thing had never happened previously (for all the reasons noted above), and would not happen again, ever - though the BCS, which began 11 years later, in 1998, tried to do so.
- As one final illustration of how new and unique this game was, it was determined that there would be no overtime if regulation ended in a tie score. Bowl games still carried the "reward" notion, after all.
All of this stuff - selling the rights to NBC, and the entire broadcast itself - was made possible just a few short years prior, in the summer of 1984, when the University of Oklahoma Board of Regents won big-time football's TV-money-freedom from the NCAA, as decided by the Supreme Court of the United States. And after this last second thriller of a contest, college football would never be the same again (for better AND worse).
Part of what made it most memorable to my pre-teen self was the hype. I bought everything NBC sold me through the television - and brother, they were selling it. It was not merely a football game, but Good vs. Evil.
Miami played the role of villian, and played it well. NBC showed footage of the Canes stepping off their flight to Tempe in woodland camouflage, "heading to war". NBC told everyone in the country that the Canes had stomped out of the pre-game dinner party with Penn State, in the week leading up to the game. And the Canes themselves, with Michael Irvin and Jerome Brown barking loudly at the front of the pack, told everyone within ear shot that they would stomp the life out of our Nittany Lions, whom NBC cast as "the good guys".
"Did the Japanese sit down to eat with Pearl Harbor before they bombed them? No. We're outta here." - Jerome Brown, Miami, All-America Defensive Tackle, leaving the pre-game dinner party
"When they walked out, that was the moment where the heat turned up 100 percent. I was ready to go find our locker room, suit up, and play right now. It's on. It is on." - Tim Johnson, Penn State, All-America Defensive Tackle
It "was on" for my old man and me, as well, sitting in our living room. Homes all over Pennsylvania, I'm certain, were ready to explode. Nittany Lion faithful were itching for a fight.
As luck would have it, the game was a murderously hard-hitting affair, by both defenses. Heisman winner Testaverde started hot, but a crushing 1st quarter hit by 5'8" safety Ray Isom on Michael Irvin forced a fumble, set the tone, and stopped Miami's early momentum. Irvin had taunted the Penn State DBs' lack of height leading up to the game, ignoring one teammate's advice:
"I'm a Jersey guy, and the one thing I knew about Penn State was that their defensive backs could hit. They crushed Michael on one play, and he came to the sidelines and I said, 'I told you so.' " - Danny Stubbs, Miami, All-America Defensive End
Physical? Violent? Lots of shoving and jawing and just-barely-not-getting-flagged post play activity? Yes. Very much yes.
Efficient, crisp, well executed? Uhhh - no. Not at all, actually. It more closely resembled a wild bar brawl than an organized football game. Through three quarters, the melee remained knotted at 7-7. Both teams had committed three turnovers. The Canes' only scoring drive traveled just 24 yards, courtesy of a John Shaffer strip sack. With the exception of a (miraculous in hindsight) 13-play, 67-yard touchdown drive just before halftime, the Penn State offense mostly operated in reverse. Tim Manoa fumbled twice. In addition to losing the strip sack, Shaffer also threw two picks, and - incredibly - botched two QB-Center snaps (both of which were recovered by Penn State). If adult bscaff had watched this game live without knowing the outcome, that 13" Zenith tv would have been tossed through a wall. Kudos to my old man for keeping it together - I don't know how he did it.
This week, as I rewatched this game on DVD in preparation to write this post, the real bullies out there weren't the Canes. It was Penn State. Joe's 1986 team was, by far, the meanest pack of Lions I can remember wearing blue and white, or any color for that matter.
They played outraged, furious that someone else stepped on the same field. Even the smallest dude on the field, #16 CB Duffy Cobbs, was an absolute serial killer out there. All of them - on offense and defense, with the possible exception of the cool-headed Shaffer - begged for a fight. Giftopolous started a fight. Bauer tried to start fights, with flying elbows and knees. Cobbs ran Irvin 5-yards out of bounds and into the ground, even after Irvin dropped the ball. Don Graham tackled Melvin Bratton into what appeared to be the first row of stadium seating. Guards Dan Morgan and Steve Wisniewski were seen knocking Canes over piles, repeatedly. And the special teams, led by reserve linebackers Kurt Bernier (#41) and Quintas McDonald (#92), absolutely destroyed kick returners.
What a pack of absolutely psychotic lunatics. What a game. What a treasured memory.