1987 Syracuse football was in a dormant stretch where they hadn’t been relevant since the 25-year run of Hall of Fame coach Ben Schwartzwalder from 1949-73. That stretch saw a national title in 1959 and included great running backs like Floyd Little and Larry Csonka. It included the most hallowed name of them all in Jim Brown. But the last six years of Schwartzwalder’s tenure saw decline and a 2-9 bottoming out in 1973. The school was now known for basketball and came within a basket of winning the 1987 NCAA title. Football was an afterthought.
Head coach Dick MacPherson had been in town since 1981, had only made one bowl appearance—the Cherry Bowl two years earlier—and was coming off a 5-6 season. Penn State was the class of the East and fresh off their 1986 national championship upset of Miami.
But the Orange had a quarterback with a name similar to his head coach—Don McPherson—that would change everything and surprise the nation in 1987. McPherson the quarterback would complete 56 percent of his passes, average an outstanding 10.2 yards-per-attempt and finish with a 22-11 TD/INT ratio that was solid by the standards of 1987. He finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting and he should have won it.
McPherson was not alone. A balanced running game was led by Robert Drummond and Michael Owens, who each averaged better than six yards a pop. Daryl Johnston was at fullback. A future member of the Dallas Cowboys dynasty run in the early 1990s and current NFL TV analyst on Fox, Johnston ran for over 600 yards and better than five per carry.
Tommy Kane was McPherson’s principal target on the outside and Kane caught 44 passes for 968 yards. Ted Gregory was the heart and soul of the defense, a first-team All-American, and free safety Markus Paul intercepted five passes. The ‘Cuse finished tenth in the nation in both scoring offense and scoring defense in 1987.
The early schedule wasn’t tough. The first five opponents—Maryland, Rutgers, Miami-Ohio, Virginia Tech and Missouri—ranged from mediocre to poor. But given that Syracuse had fit the same definition for almost twenty years, it was notable that they won all five by double digit margins. The pollsters took notice and moved them to #13 in the rankings.
It was time for Penn State to come to town. The Lions weren’t the same as last year—an early home loss to Alabama had them back on their heels in the national title picture and ranked #10. But this game would still decide who was the frontrunner in the East. And more to the point, this was still Penn ‘freaking State, whom Syracuse had not beaten since 1970.
It took exactly one play for the balance of power to shift in the East. McPherson dropped back on the first play of the game and threw an 80-yard touchdown strike to Rob Moore. McPherson found Kane for two more TD passes. McPherson ran the option to both the right and left side for touchdowns. His final numbers were 15/20 for 336 yards. The defense, led by Gregory held Penn State running back Blair Thomas to 42 yards rushing. The final was 48-21 and it never seemed even that close.
The polls moved the Orange into the Top 10, at #9. After summarily dispatching Colgate, Syracuse went to Pitt. The Panthers were on their way to an eight-win season and had one of the nation’s best defenses. Syracuse churned out a 24-10 win. They took care of business against a bad Navy team, 34-10 and pushed up to #6 in the polls.
At 9-0, the ‘Cuse was squarely in the national championship picture, but also set up for a lot of frustration. Nebraska and Oklahoma were in the 1-2 spots, with their head-to-head winner locked in for the Orange Bowl. Miami was #3, also undefeated and in position to be their opponent on New Year’s Night. Something had to upset the applecart in that mix for Syracuse to even have a chance.
But first things first. Syracuse had two more football games to win. They blew out mediocre Boston College 45-17. West Virginia came to the Carrier Dome for the final game of the year.
The worst aspect of the old bowl system wasn’t the lack of flexibility in creating matchups due to conference tie-ins, or even to the fact that the system couldn’t accommodate more than two undefeated teams in the regular season. The worst part was that prior to the 1990s, bowls rushed to sign up their teams before the regular season was over.
Thus, even though Miami still had two tough games remaining—against Notre Dame and South Carolina. And even though Syracuse was the most likely candidate to ascend to #2 in the event of a Hurricane loss, the Orange Bowl locked up a Miami-Oklahoma matchup as soon as the Sooners won their head-to-head matchup with the Cornhuskers. Syracuse committed to a Sugar Bowl berth prior to the season finale.
Now they needed a triple dose of help—Miami had to lose in the regular season, then beat OU in the Orange Bowl, then the pollsters had to reward an undefeated Syracuse over a one-loss Hurricane team that would be fresh off beating the #1 team in the country.
Again, first things first. West Virginia would give Syracuse the scare of its season. The Mountaineers had the core of talent that would produce their own breakout undefeated season in 1988. The Orange were sloppy and turned the ball over six times. West Virginia led 14-10 at the half and 24-17 in the second half. After Syracuse tied the game, the Mountaineers scored the go-ahead touchdown with 1:30 left. It was 31-24 and Syracuse’s perfect season was teetering.
McPherson already had a special place in the lore of this program, but he delivered his biggest drive right here. Syracuse reached the West Virginia 17-yard line with ten seconds to play. McPherson dropped back and hit tight end Pat Kelly in the end zone.
There was nothing to lose by going for two—Syracuse was going to the Sugar Bowl regardless, and a tie was just as damaging to any remaining national championship hopes as a loss. McPherson ran an option to the left side. He pitched to Owens who got to the pylon. Syracuse had a thrilling 32-31 win.
Hopes for a national title grew dimmer when Miami closed its regular season undefeated. Now Syracuse was stuck hoping for a tie game in the Orange Bowl (there was no overtime in college football prior to 1996). But polls or not, there was a chance to win a major bowl game—and at the same venue where the basketball team had come oh-so-close the previous March.
Sixth-ranked Auburn won the SEC’s bid to the Sugar Bowl. They got on the board first with an early touchdown. McPherson responded in the second quarter with a 12-yard toss to Deval Glover, who finished the game with six catches for 91 yards.
The Tigers grabbed a field goal before halftime, and the Orange countered with a 27-yard field goal in the third quarter. The teams swapped field goals again and it was 13-13. What’s worth noting is that Auburn’s field goals were from 40-plus yards, while Syracuse, through a big edge in rush yardage, was driving into the red zone, but having to settle for three. The Orange were missing opportunities.
Another opportunity came with just over two minutes to play and Syracuse reached the 21-yard line and faced fourth down and inches. Dick MacPherson decided to kick the field goal. It was clearly the right decision, but what made it even more interesting was MacPherson’s admission after the game that he opted for the field goal because figured Auburn couldn’t possibly kick a field goal of their own and take the public backlash over settling for a tie.
The Syracuse coach would have preferred not to find out, but Auburn drove to the Orangemen’s 13-yard line. There were four seconds left and it was decision time. To the chagrin of fans around the country and to the fury of MacPherson, Auburn kicked a field goal and took a 16-16 tie.
In the moment, most fans (including myself) were outraged by the fact the Tigers didn’t play to win. I didn’t have a dog in the fight rooting-wise (at least that I recall), but everyone wanted to see if Syracuse could complete their run to perfection.
But in fairness, a pass from the 13-yard line is extremely low percentage, a far cry from the standard two-point conversion decision that coaches were often faced with in those days. And Syracuse fans have to be realistic and ask why it would be okay for MacPherson to settle for a field goal on fourth-and-inches late in the game, but not for Auburn to do so with 13 yards to go and one play left.
The tie left kind of a “blah” ending to the season, but with the vantage point of history, we can celebrate how special it truly was. Syracuse won the Lambert Trophy as the best team in the East. They finished #4 in the final polls. And they set the stage for another sustained run of success that would last until 2000.
MacPherson turned the winning into an NFL opportunity with the New England Patriots. A great player named Donovan McNabb came through town in the late 1990s. Bowl bids were annual events and major bowls always at least on the radar. 1987 started that great run of Syracuse football.