For at least seven years, 1987 through 1993, the Miami-Florida State rivalry blazed red-hot, one of the best in both college football and all of sports. 1989 had an ironic twist—more often than not, the Hurricanes got the best of the Seminoles. Florida State won the ’89 battle, but even then, it was Miami who ended up winning the war before it was all over.
You can read more about the complete seasons of both teams, as well as their key players, at the links below. This post focuses specifically on the 1989 Miami-Florida State game.
It was a humid night in Tallahassee on October 28. Florida State was building momentum on their season after a rocky start left them 0-2 and out of the national championship picture. The Seminoles had responded with five straight wins, three over ranked teams. Beating #2 and undefeated Miami would validate their turnaround.
The Hurricanes were dealing with an injured quarterback. Craig Erickson had missed the last two games and been replaced by freshman Gino Torretta. It hadn’t come back to bite the ‘Canes yet, but the freshman had not faced an opponent of this caliber or a road environment that would be this loud.
And it showed on his first pass. Torretta was picked off by LeRoy Butler. FSU’s Dexter Carter immediately ripped off a 37-yard run for a touchdown. A first-quarter flurry was underway.
To his credit, Torretta settled down and led a 65-yard TD drive that tied the game. Florida State marched right back with another touchdown. Miami raced back the other way and got a field goal. All the back and forth left this a 14-10 game with FSU in front as the first quarter came to a close.
The remaining three quarters would be marked by Hurricane mistakes and missed opportunities. Miami drove to the one-yard line in the second quarter. Torretta’s third-down pass was intercepted in the end zone by Kevin Grant. The ‘Canes drove to the one-yard line in the third quarter. Kirk Carruthers recovered a fumble. The recovery went with Carruthers’ two interceptions and made it a dream night for the linebacker.
Florida State made the turnover hurt when they drove 99 yards for a touchdown that gave them some breathing room. After a field goal extended the lead to 24-10 it was time for Miami to make yet another drive to the FSU one-yard line. This time they were stopped on downs.
On the night, the ‘Canes committed six turnovers—four of them interceptions by the freshman quarterback. They were flagged for nine penalties totaling nearly 100 yards.
Lest we think that the evening was only marked by Miami shooting themselves in the foot, let’s also point out that Florida State dominated the line of scrimmage. The Seminoles rushed for over 200 yards, 142 of them from Carter. The Seminoles moved up to #6 in the polls with the win. The Hurricanes fell to #7.
Miami would rebound though, winning out and beating top-ranked Notre Dame in the season finale. The Hurricanes went on to the Sugar Bowl back at #2 and beat Alabama. When the Irish knocked off #1 Coloradoin the Orange Bowl, it handed Miami the national title.
As for Florida State, they kept on coming. The Seminoles won out and then blasted Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl. FSU finished #3 and had a lot of people believing they were the nation’s best team, even if the two early losses made it impractical to crown them as champs.
Notre Dame and Michigan have played some big college football games over the years. But none was bigger and perhaps none was more anticipated than the one the Irish and Wolverines played in September of 1989, when they were ranked 1-2 in the country.
You can read more about the season-long journeys of each team and about their key players. This post focuses specifically on the events of the 1989 Notre Dame-Michigan game that went down on September 16th in Ann Arbor.
The Big House in Michigan was artificial turf in 1989 and television viewers saw puddles throughout the carpet, fruits of some hard rain prior to kickoff. The Notre Dame offense was conservative by nature anyway, but the field situation undoubtedly made it more so. Irish quarterback Tony Rice only threw two passes the entire game—and, as it turned out, one of them would be for a touchdown.
On the flip side, the Wolverines had to put the ball up. Their starting quarterback, Michael Taylor, was an option-oriented runner, but when he was injured, freshman Elvis Grbac came off the bench. Grbac was only a freshman, but he had a good future—both here at Michigan and later in the NFL. Grbac went 17/23 for 134 yards and threw a pair of touchdown passes, keying a statistical edge for the Wolverines on the afternoon.
But that statistical edge had a big caveat to it. The reason Notre Dame didn’t amass more yards is that their special teams did the work for them, not once, but twice. Specifically, return man Raghib “The Rocket” Ismail was the story of the afternoon.
After the cautious first half, the Irish held a 7-6 lead and were set to get the ball to start the second half. Ismail’s speed and explosiveness were renowned, but Michigan had not allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown in over three decades. Perhaps that, along with the value of field position in a game like this, was why Wolverine coach Bo Schembechler decided to kick it deep to the Rocket.
Schembechler’s decision was understandable, but it had disastrous consequences for Michigan. Ismail went 88 yards to the house and gave Notre Dame a 14-6 lead. Grbac responded with a TD drive, but the missed two-point conversion kept the score at 14-12. Worse, it meant the Wolverines had to kick off again. This time, Ismail went 92 yards for a touchdown.
The Irish won 24-19, sealing the game with a 4th-and-1 conversion at the Michigan 30 with just under two minutes to play.
Notre Dame stayed undefeated and atop the polls all the way to Thanksgiving weekend before they lost at eventual national champ Miami. The Irish finished the season at #2 in the country. Michigan won out the rest of the way and were in the top 5 nationally before a close Rose Bowl loss to USC left them #7 in the final rankings.
1989 had marked a shift in the power structure of the old Big Eight. Colorado replaced Oklahoma as the foil for Nebraska in a conference that always seemed to be top-heavy with two really good teams. The Buffaloes beat the Cornhuskers in ’89 and went to the Orange Bowl ranked #1 before a loss to Notre Dame ended their title hopes. The 1990 Colorado-Nebraska battle was another November matchup between teams looking to win their league and keep national championship dreams alive.
In a normal year, Colorado’s national hopes would have already been gone. They tied Tennessee and lost a one-point game to Illinois in September. The Buffs won a controversial game at Missouri in October thanks to an officiating blunder that gave Colorado five downs to score the game-winning touchdown. But 1990 was no ordinary year in college football and the Buffs were undefeated within the Big Eight when they came to Lincoln on November 3.
Nebraska was undefeated and ranked #3. Virginia and Notre Dame held the top two spots in the polls. The Big Eight champ was contractually bound to the Orange Bowl, while the ACC champ was bound to the Citrus (today’s Capital One Bowl), but the Cornhuskers had every reason to believe that if they could win out, a title shot on New Year’s Day would be theirs.
On a windy and rainy day in Memorial Stadium, Nebraska seemed in control for three quarters. Colorado had an early mishap when their great running back, Eric Bienemy, fumbled on the Cornhusker 3-yard line. The Cornhuskers led 12-0 late in the third quarter. Bienemy had been held to 62 yards. Not a bad showing with a quarter-plus to play, but not when the run-heavy Buffalo offense needed to win a game like this.
Then the stunning turnabout came. A Nebraska team that always prided itself on physical play was simply whipped in the trenches by the Buffs. Bienemy added 75 more rushing yards to his total. He scored four touchdowns in the final quarter alone. Colorado won 27-12.
The pain for Nebraska got worse when Virginia was upset byGeorgia Tech that same day. Colorado, ranked #9 coming into this game, vaulted to #4 and put themselves back in the national title mix.
Nebraska ended the season on a down note. They lost at Oklahoma and then went to the Citrus Bowl and were hammered by Georgia Tech.
As for Colorado? They returned to the Orange Bowl and got a rematch with Notre Dame. This time, the Buffs won and they shared the national title with the Yellow Jackets.
Nebraska and Oklahoma completely dominated the old Big Eight Conference (forerunner of today’s Big 12) through the 1980s. How thorough was the domination? In games not played against each other, the Cornhuskers and Sooners combined to go 137-6-1 from 1980-88. But in 1989, Oklahoma slipped. Colorado stepped up as the principal rival to Nebraska. And on November 4, the 1989 Nebraska-Colorado game was one of the great battles of the entire college football season.
The Buffs came into the game undefeated and ranked #2 in the country. The Cornhuskers were #3. The winner of their game in Boulder would get an Orange Bowl bid and a crack at #1 Notre Dame. CBS was on hand for the midafternoon kickoff with the legendary Jim Nantz, still a young buck in the broadcast booth, on the call.
Nebraska struck first with an interception that was quickly turned into a touchdown. Colorado struck back with an electric option play. Starting on his own 30-yard-line, quarterback Darien Hagen went left and made a big play, picking up thirty yards. J.J. Flanigan, the trailing running back stayed with Hagen the entire way and Hagen actually made the pitch at the Nebraska 40-yard line. Flanigan ran the rest of the way and the game was tied.
Colorado was also winning the battle of special teams. Jeff Campbell made a couple big returns, one of which set up another touchdown. The Buffs led 17-14 in the third quarter when the game’s critical sequence went down.
On the doorstep of a touchdown that would put him two scores ahead, Colorado coach Bill McCartney got too cute by half. He called for a halfback option pass that fooled no one and ended up an interception. But pass interference was called. Replays showed that the interference call was, at best, debatable. At worst, Nebraska had been robbed. Hagen scored on the next play.
The Cornhuskers were able to close within 27-21 and got to midfield in the closing minute. Their quarterback, Gerry Gdowski, didn’t have a rifle arm and they needed about ten more yards to give him a realistic crack at a desperation throw to the end zone. Two key drops hurt and the last-ditch drive died. Ten seconds later, the goal posts were torn down in Boulder.
Nebraska settled for a Fiesta Bowl bid to play 9-2 Florida State. That didn’t go well. The Seminoles were the hottest team in the country after losing their first two games and the Cornhuskers were standing in the way of a New Year’s Day freight train. Not until 1994, did Nebraska finally win a national title for head coach Tom Osborne.
Colorado got the Orange Bowl bid and moved to #1 in the country when Notre Dame lost at Miami on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Because bowl matchups were already locked in, the Buffs still played the Irish, rather than the now-#2 Hurricanes. On New Year’s Night, the national title in their grasp, Colorado missed several early opportunities and then Notre Dame took over the second half. The ultimate 21-6 loss ended the Buffs’ title bid.
It had still been a magnificent year for Colorado, a breakthrough season. And one year later, they built on the success, came back and won a share of the national championship.
It was a year that produced Joe Paterno’s last really good team, some great individual talent in State College, Columbus and elsewhere and the beginning of a new era at Michigan that would be unfulfilling. Here are the top stories in 2008 Big Ten football…
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PRIME TIME IN COLUMBUS
Penn State and Ohio State were the nation’s two best teams and ABC was on hand for their Saturday night battle in Columbus on October 25. The Lions were undefeated and ranked #3. The Buckeyes had only lost to powerful USC and were #10. A defensive battle ensued.
Ohio State was holding a 6-3 lead in the fourth quarter, in a game that felt like a throwback to the 1970s. Fittingly, it was the Nittany Lion defense that stepped up and made the big play. They forced a fumble that set up the go-ahead touchdown. After a field goal made it 13-6, the Buckeyes made one final drive. Penn State preserved the win with an interception on the goal line.
The two teams ended the season tied for first. This game was the difference in sending Joe Paterno to the Rose Bowl, the final major bowl trip for the legendary head coach.
RICH-ROD AT MICHIGAN
The Michigan football program hasn’t been a consistent national contender for over a decade and the roots of the Wolverines’ relative mediocrity started in 2008. Rich Rodriguez was the new head coach after Lloyd Carr retired and he attempted a drastic renovation on the culture of the program.
Rodriguez had risen to national prominence with a wide-open spread offense at West Virginia, one that got him close to playing for a national championship in 2007. The theory was that he could juice up Michigan’s offense.
Sounds great in theory. Reality was different. Michigan didn’t play on the smooth artificial turf that West Virginia did. More importantly, Michigan had big offensive lineman that allowed them to play physical football, whereas West Virginia had to go finesse by necessity. The clash between the system of “Rich Rod” and the time-honored football culture at Michigan never worked.
And it was never worse than in 2008. There was a brief moment of hope when the Wolverines rallied from 19-0 down to beat Wisconsin in the conference opener. Otherwise, the year was a disaster. Michigan finished 3-9.
THE COLLAPSE OF WISCONSIN
Speaking of Wisconsin…the Badgers suffered through their worst season of Bret Bielama’s otherwise successful six-year run in Madison and one of their worst since the renaissance under Barry Alvarez started back in 1993. The meltdown in Michigan was just one part of the disappointment.
They played Penn State in a prime-time game in October. This writer, a Wisconsin fan, was in attendance with a Penn State friend. It was a long night for me as the Badgers lost 48-7. Wisconsin lost to every notable team in conference play–Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa. And the worst embarrassments would come at the end.
A non-conference visit by Cal-Poly closed the year. A school whose football program was otherwise only known for as the college destination of Tom Cruise’s character in All The Right Moves, would have beaten Wisconsin if not for an inability to make extra points. The Badgers survived 36-35, but that barely mitigated the national embarrassment. A bowl game against Florida State was a 42-13 loss.
2008 was Mark Dantonio’s second year in East Lansing and the Spartans started to show the signs of life that would turn them into a consistent contender over the next decade. Javon Ringer ran for over 1,600 yards and was 1st-team All-Big Ten. They had a shot at a piece of the conference title until a loss at Penn State in the season finale ended this hopes.
More important, they began to assert themselves in their rivalry with Michigan. One year earlier, Wolverine running back Michael Hart infamously called Sparty the “little brother” in the rivalry. Dantonio publicly vowed that Michigan would eat those words. The head coach started backing that up in 2008 when he went to Ann Arbor and posted a 35-21 win. Michigan State would have more than its usual share of good moments against their rivals in the years ahead.
Penn State has traditionally been known as Linebacker U and their 2008 defense was led by NaVorro Bowman, who was en route to a career as one of the NFL’s top linebackers with the San Francisco 49ers. One can only imagine how good the Lion defense might have been if Sean Lee, another man with a long NFL career ahead of him, hadn’t been injured in preseason.
But the linebacker who copped Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors was in Columbus. James Laurinatis keyed the Buckeye defense and would enjoy an NFL career of his own with the Rams.
There was other great defensive talent in the league–top defensive backs included Vontae Davis at Illinois and Ohio State’s Malcolm Jenkins. Mitch King from Iowa was a terrific defensive lineman. But it’s the linebackers who stood out.
They weren’t the best team in the conference, but no team was more impactful nationally than Iowa. The Hawkeyes ended Penn State’s bid for a national title in November when they rallied for a late field goal and a 24-23 upset. Iowa produced the Big Ten MVP in running back Shonn Greene, who ran for over 1,800 yards. And they were the only conference team to win a bowl game. Iowa’s 31-10 victory over Steve Spurrier’s South Carolina team in the Outback Bowl was the only bright spot of a rough postseason for the conference.
Clemson football had been in a funk for about a decade. The great Frank Howard had built the program to greatness in the mid-20th century, but the end of his career in the 1960s was marked by a slow decline. Two successors tried to achieve a restoration, but more mediocrity followed. Then Charley Pell arrived and in 1977 the Tigers got back on the map with an 8-2-1 season and Gator Bowl bid.
1978 Clemson football built on that success, winning the school’s first ACC championship in eleven years, finishing in the Top 10 and setting the stage for even bigger wins in the years to come.
Clemson was loaded with talent offensively. Steve Fuller, a future quarterback for Mike Ditka’s Chicago Bears won the ACC MVP award in 1978. Fuller’s 54% completion rate was good by the standards of the late 1970s. He generated 8.1 yards-per-attempt and was a threat with his legs, running for 649 yards.
Lester Brown led the way for a potent running attack, going over the 1,000-yard threshold. Marvin Sims was a good change of pace in the backfield, adding 658 yards. Both Brown and Sims went for five yards a pop.
The receivers were even better. Dwight Clark, a future mainstay of the great San Francisco 49ers teams of the 1980s, was on one side. And he wasn’t even the best wideout. Jerry Butler was Fuller’s top target, catching 58 passes for over 900 yards. Butler was chosen fifth overall in the NFL draft the following spring.
Need more? Joe Bostic, a future member of the great Washington Redskins’ offensive lines under Joe Gibbs, was at guard. There was a solid linebacker corps of Bubba Brown, Randy Scott and Jon Brooks. Steve Ryan and Rex Varn were ballhawks in the secondary, picking off four passes each. Clemson finished sixth in the nation in both scoring offense and scoring defense.
The strong 1977 campaign earned Clemson a preseason ranking at #18, but the Tigers were out of the polls by the time they played their first game on September 16, a 58-0 beatdown of the Citadel.
A visit to Georgia was next, a battle between two teams headed for good seasons, but currently unnoticed by the pollsters. When Clemson was shut out 12-0, it seemed to validate that the Tiger program was not ready for prime-time.
The schedule softened up in the weeks ahead and Clemson got back on their feet with easy wins over Villanova and Virginia Tech (then an independent). They opened up ACC play with easy wins over Virginia and Duke, both conference cellar-dwellers. By the end of the four-game win streak, Clemson was back in the polls at #20.
In late October came a visit to N.C. State. The Wolfpack had one of the country’s top running backs in Ted Brown and were one of three viable contenders for the conference championship, along with Clemson and Maryland. The Tiger defense did a number on the Pack, while the offense pounded out over 200 yards rushing. Clemson’s 33-10 win moved them to #16.
There were still two games to play before a November 18 visit to Maryland. The first one against lowly Wake was easy enough, a 51-6 win. But a home game with mediocre North Carolina nearly spoiled the Tiger season.
The Clemson offense was flat and trailed 9-6 early in the fourth quarter. Fuller got things going with a 24-yard pass to Butler. Brown ripped off a 21-yard run. Brown then finished off the 80-yard drive with a one-yard plunge to get a 13-9 lead. The Tar Heels came driving back in the final two minutes, but Bubba Brown sealed the win with an interception at the Tiger 29. They had survived.
Now it was showdown time. Clemson was ranked #12, Maryland was at #11. Both were undefeated in conference play and both had just one loss overall. Even though the ACC was not seen as a top-tier conference, this game had national attention.
It was worthy of the stakes. Maryland blocked a punt in the first half and took a 14-7 lead into intermission. Then the big plays erupted.
Fuller hit Butler on an 87-yard touchdown strike to tie the game in the third quarter. Maryland got a big play of their own, a 98-yard run from Steve Atkins. Clemson pulled back even when Clark caught a 62-yard touchdown pass. It was 21-all.
Each team had one more good drive in them. The difference is that Clemson finished theirs, with a five-yard touchdown run from Brown while the Terps settled for a field goal. The Tigers hung on 28-24. They were rewarded with another Gator Bowl invite and moved into the Top 10. Clemson closed the year with a 41-23 win over mediocre South Carolina.
By the time the Gator Bowl arrived, Clemson had a new coach. Pell’s success got him the opening at Florida and Danny Ford was promoted from within. They were also ranked #7 and hoping to validate their season with a big win in a bowl game that was just one step below the majors.
Ohio State was the opponent. It had not been a vintage year for the Buckeyes, who ended up 8-3 under the legendary head coach Woody Hayes. They were ranked #20. But the game was still a terrific opportunity for Clemson, playing a marquee opponent on a Friday night and ABC having the great Keith Jackson on hand to call the game.
The Buckeyes controlled the first quarter but only produced three points. The Tigers got their offense going in the second quarter and went ahead 7-3. They took a 10-9 lead into the locker room. Late in the third quarter, Clemson extended the lead to 17-9.
Ohio State rallied. They scored a touchdown with eight minutes left, but Clemson was able to stop the two-point conversion and keep a 17-15 lead. Late in the game, they had the ball at the Buckeye 40 and faced a third down. Fuller ran the option. He tried to force a pitch when none was there. The ball came loose and Ohio State recovered.
That fumble set in motion the historic chain of events that has defined this game. Ohio State moved just outside the Clemson 20-yard line and was certainly in position to win the game with a field goal. But kicking games weren’t as reliable then as they are now, so the Buckeyes’ decision to keep throwing the football was not surprising.
Clemson nose tackle Charlie Baum sniffed out a screen, dropped into coverage and made an interception. He ran out of bounds at the Ohio State sideline. An enraged Hayes hauled off and punched Baum. It’s understandable that the punch, which led to Hayes’ dismissal in the days after the game is what lives on in memory.
But it shouldn’t be forgotten what a good football game this was or what the win meant to the Clemson program. They were on the map. This was the first of six bowl wins for Ford and he won five ACC championships in his own right. And just three years later, in 1981, Clemson shocked the college football world by winning the national championship.
A fresh era of franchise success began with the 1983 Los Angeles Rams. The team had taken a step back the previous two years, missing the playoffs both times after a successful run from 1973-80 that included a Super Bowl trip in 1979. In 1983, the Rams got a new coach in John Robinson, a new running back in Eric Dickerson and went back to the playoffs.
Robinson had been highly successful coaching at USC, including a national championship year in 1978, so was familiar to the Los Angeles fan base. Robinson’s Trojan teams always had great running backs and he made sure to bring the approach to the NFL. In a year renowned for its rookie quarterbacks (John Elway, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly), the Rams got Dickerson.
Eric Dickerson ran for over 1,800 yards, caught 51 passes out of the backfield—second-most on the team and made 1st-team All-Pro. A physical specimen of speed and power, Dickerson belongs at or near the top of any conversation about the greatest running backs of all time, and he was at the heart of the Ram recovery in 1983.
The great back didn’t lack for blocking either, with two Pro Bowl lineman up front in Kent Hill and Jackie Slater. The Rams were a physical team that not only ran the ball, but even their passing game oriented more to the tight ends and the backs. Tight end Mike Barber was the best receiver, 55 catches for 657 yards. Fullback Mike Guman caught 34 passes.
Los Angeles’ receivers were George Farmer and Preston Dennard. They had a rookie in Henry Ellard who would eventually be great, but right now he settled for returning punts and growing his way into the league.
Vince Ferragamo was at quarterback, and could be prolific—his 3,276 passing yards were very good by the standards of the era, his 59 percent completion rate was pretty good and his 22 touchdown passes solid. But he did throw 23 interceptions. While that wasn’t the killer stat it would be today, it was still high and more important, it was out of place on a team that relied on running the ball.
The Rams finished 11th in the league in points scored. The defense was a bit lower at 15th, with only one Pro Bowler, free safety Nolan Cromwell. Jack Youngblood also registered 10 ½ sacks.
Los Angeles opened the season in the Meadowlands against the Giants, who were on their way to horrible 3-12-1 season. Expectations weren’t high for either team on September 4, to say the least, and the game lived down to those expectations. Each team turned it over five times, but the Rams came out of it with a 16-6 win.
A home game with the New Orleans Saints would loom large as the season went on. The Rams trailed 10-0 and were chasing all the way, as they again turned it over five times. Ferragamo threw for 266 yards this time and when Dickerson ran it in from three yards out, Los Angeles finally completed a 30-27 comeback win.
The Rams then dropped two straight road games by 27-24 counts. They dug a 17-0 hole at Green Bay, before Ferragamo rallied the troops. He was 20/30 for 259 yards and the Rams scored 24 straight points to get the lead, before giving it back. In a late afternoon game the following week at old Shea Stadium and the New York Jets, Dickerson had a big day, with 192 yards and an 85-yard touchdown run. But Ferragamo threw four interceptions, a field goal was blocked and returned for a touchdown and the Rams lost.
Dickerson’s big day in Shea though, represented his coming out party. He went for 199 yards and three touchdowns in a 21-10 win over Detroit, a team struggling at the time, but that would eventually make the playoffs themselves.
The next three weeks brought divisional games. Two with the San Francisco 49ers, who were two years removed from winning the Super Bowl with the young Joe Montana at quarterback. The other with the Atlanta Falcons, who had been the top team in a bad year for the old NFC West in the strike-shortened season of 1982 (the division included the Saints, in addition to these three teams).
A battle of Dickerson on the ground versus Montana through the air went down in old Candlestick Park, as Dickerson ran from 142 yards, Montana threw for 316, but the Rams recovered three fumbles and won 10-7. Then they spotted the Falcons leads of 14-0 and 21-7 before rallying to win 27-21 at home. Dickerson went for 164 yards, while Ferragamo was 23/36 for 247 yards, spreading the ball around among all his receivers.
The rematch with the 49ers was the opposite of the first game, turning into a shootout. Ferragamo went 26/35 for 327 yards, with Barber catching eight of those passes for 113 yards. Montana answered with 25/39 for 358 yards. Even though Dickerson ran for 144 yards and the Rams led 28-17 after three quarters, it was a San Francisco tempo and they exploded for four touchdowns in the fourth quarter, beating Los Angeles 45-35.
Another future Hall of Fame quarterback was next in a road trip to Miami to face the rookie Marino, who was already playing extremely well. Dickerson produced another 100-yard game and the Rams were tied 14-14 at the half against a team on its way to a 12-win season. But Ferragamo threw three interceptions and the second half went awry in a 30-14 loss.
A running back showdown between Dickerson and Chicago’s great Walter Payton was next and the rookie was the decisive winner. Dickerson outrushed Payton, a former league MVP back in 1977 by a 127-62 count—albeit on twenty extra carries, as the Rams controlled tempo. They also won the football game, 21-14.
It was time for the nation to get its first real look at this stud rookie running back. Monday Night Football was the only weekly prime-time stage in the NFL at this time and the Rams were going to Atlanta for the November 14 edition. Not only did Dickerson put on a show, but the entire Los Angeles running game did. Dickerson ran for 146 yards and #2 back Barry Redden piled up 110 in a 36-13 rout.
The Rams hosted the Redskins, who were on their way to a 14-2 season with a devastating offense and a defense that could force turnovers. Los Angeles was standing in the way of a freight train, falling behind 42-6 before getting a couple meaningless touchdowns. Even with the loss, the Rams were tied for first in the NFC West with the 49ers at 7-5, while the Saints were in close pursuit at 6-6. The Falcons had faded badly from the picture.
Los Angeles’ position only got stronger in a 41-17 rout over mediocre Buffalo. After a scoreless first quarter, they blew the game open behind a ballhawking defense that intercepted five passes, including a Pick-6 from Johnnie Johnson. Ferragamo was sharp, going 18/31 for 206 yards. San Francisco lost the same day, and the Rams were sole possession of first place.
But just when things were going good, the Rams stumbled. They went to Philadelphia to play a poor Eagles team and failed to execute in the red zone. Three drives to the 11-yard line or closer ended in field goals and when Philly found the end zone in the fourth quarter, Los Angeles lost 13-9. They lost at home to a mediocre opponent in New England, coughing up five fumbles in a 21-7 defeat.
The Rams were now a game back of the 49ers, and even worse, they did not control their playoff fate. Los Angeles and New Orleans would play in the Superdome in a game where it was win-and-in-you’re in for the Saints. If the Rams could win, they would need the Packers to lose in Chicago, a game that would be played at the same time. Or Los Angeles could take the NFC West if they won and San Francisco lost on Monday Night to the Dallas Cowboys.
The early TV window on Sunday afternoon proved to have some magic for the Rams. After falling behind 7-0, Youngblood sacked New Orleans quarterback Ken Stabler for a safety. Ellard returned a punt 72 yards for a touchdown, and in the third quarter, Johnson took an interception to the house. Los Angeles led 16-7 without scoring an offensive point.
New Orleans nudged ahead 17-16 before the defense came through again, a 43-yard interception return from Cromwell for a 23-17 lead. Dickerson was not running well though, at least by his standards—80 yards on 19 carries and the Rams fell behind 24-23.
The Saints had the ball on the Los Angeles 32-yard line, facing 4th-and-less than a yard. Despite having a great kicker in Morten Andersen, they opted to punt. The punt went into the end zone for a touchback. Ferragamo, after a mediocre day, completed six straight passes, got a roughing the passer call and put the team on the 25-yard-line.
Kicker Mike Lansford finally produced some offensive points, with a 42-yard field goal as time expired. It was part of a theme for the day—a last-second field goal in Chicago sent Green Bay to a 23-21 loss and Los Angeles into the playoffs.
There was still a chance for a division title, but it was as longshot. Even though the Cowboys were a tough opponent, they were locked into the 4-seed and playing on the road. The 49ers won in a rout, 42-17. Los Angeles would go to Dallas for the NFC wild-card game.
No one had any expectations for the Rams, and they were an eight-point underdogs on the day after Christmas. Ferragamo threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to David Hill in the first quarter, and Dallas answered to tie the game at 7-7 in the second quarter.
After falling behind 10-7, Los Angeles started to again produce on special teams and defense. They recovered a muffed punt and Ferragamo immediately hit Dennard on a 16-yard touchdown pass. Then an interception set up an 8-yard touchdown pass to Farmer. Now it was 21-10 and Dickerson was running well, gaining 99 yards.
The defense came through one more time, as Dallas drove deep into Los Angeles territory. LeRoy Irving returned an interception 94 yards, completely flipped the field and the Rams got a short field goal. The Cowboys scored a touchdown, but well after the game was decided.
Los Angeles had a 24-17 win, their second playoff victory at Dallas in the past four years. It didn’t make up for NFC Championship Game losses at home to the Cowboys in 1975 and 1978, but it was a nice feather in the cap for the fan base, and this game in particular was a big statement for the Robinson/Dickerson era.
Early on New Year’s Day, the Rams had to again stand in front of the Redskin freight train and a similar result went down in a 51-7 loss. Even with this defeat though, it was a comeback year for the Rams. It was the first of six playoff appearances in a seven-year span for Robinson (though Dickerson would be traded a few years later after a contract dispute). They never got to the Super Bowl, but they did reach two NFC Championship Games and produced consistently good football. It was an era that started in 1983.
The San Francisco 49ers had been a moderately successful franchise in the early 1970s with John Brodie at quarterback, but those teams came up short in the playoffs and the team then fell on hard times. San Francisco struggled to a 6-10 finish in 1980, finishing third in the four-team NFC West they shared with Atlanta, the LA Rams and the New Orleans Saints. Atlanta had gone 12-4 and Los Angeles was 11-5 the previous year, with both making the playoffs, but losing to perennial power Dallas.
Head coach Bill Walsh was of a mind to change that, having already made a jump from two to six wins and now was aiming for more. The godfather of the West Coast offense had his quarterback in place with Joe Montana and a good tandem of receivers in possession man Dwight Clark and deep threat Freddie Solomon.
Defensively the Niners needed help and they were banking on three rookie defensive backs—Eric Wright, Carlton Williamson and Ronnie Lott to step in and make immediate impact. No one was thinking Super Bowl, but the 1981 San Francisco 49ers had reason to think the winning was around the corner.
The season didn’t start off well. They lost their opener in Detroit and a Week 3 game at Atlanta gave absolutely no evidence that a changing of the guard in the NFC West in the offing. The Niners fell behind early, Montana did not play well and Atlanta’s Steve Bartkowski carved up the young secondary in a 34-17 final.
Consecutive wins over New Orleans and Washington got Walsh’s team to 3-2 and set up a mid-October home game with Dallas. No one was prepared for what happened in Candlestick Park. The 49ers had a 21-0 lead by the end of the first quarter and the Cowboys never got back into the game. Montana was efficient and Clark racked up over 100 yards in receiving. The 45-14 final sent a clear message to the conference’s traditional power.
There was no letdown afterward, as a win over Green Bay set up a game with Los Angeles. The 49ers again got off to fast start, leading 14-0 after a quarter. Montana and Ram quarterback Pat Haden—a future TV analyst and current USC athletic director—each played well, but Montana was able to play with a lead, Clark again had 100-plus receiving yards and San Fran churned out a 20-17 win.
One week later it was the defense who took center stage in Pittsburgh. While the Steelers, the dominant team of the 1970s, had begun their decline the previous year and missed the playoffs, they were still respected and the 14-3 shutdown performance was yet another sign that Walsh had something special going by the Bay.
In the meantime, Atlanta and Los Angeles were fading fast and would fall to 7-9 and 6-10 respectively. San Francisco was able to coast home, winning both remaining games against its division rivals, finishing 13-3 and securing both the NFC West and the top seed in the playoffs. They and Dallas were light-years ahead of the rest of the NFC and the October win was the difference in making the road to the Super Bowl come through Frisco.
San Francisco took the field for their first playoff game, facing the New York Giants. The Niners again scored first. Their fast starts were no coincidence, as Walsh had instituted the practice of scripting the first 25 plays, regardless of down and distance and San Fran used its preparation to consistently get the early edge.
In this game, Giant quarterback Scott Brunner wiped out the early deficit with a 72-yard strike to Earnest Gray, but the 49ers kicked into another gear for the second quarter, scoring 17 points, including a 58-yard pass from Montana to Solomon. The day of long scoring passes continued when Brunner completed a 59-yard play to cut the margin back to 24-14, but ultimately the Giant signal-caller was not efficient, completing only 16 of 37 passes, while Montana was a cool 20-for-31. The final was 38-24 and when Dallas destroyed Tampa Bay in the other divisional game, the NFC title showdown was set.
The 1981 NFC Championship Game was about more than who would play in the Super Bowl. It was about one proud traditional power looking to keep what it saw as their rightful place atop the conference, and another up-and-comer looking to change the landscape.
It was a game worthy of those stakes. San Francisco—have you heard this before?—struck first and took a 7-0 lead in the first quarter, but Dallas scored 10 points before the quarter was out. The teams traded TDs and the lead in the second quarter and it was 17-14 Cowboys at the half.
San Francisco was nursing a 21-20 lead into the fourth quarter when Dallas quarterback Danny White found tight end Doug Cosbie for a touchdown. With the 49ers pinned on their own 12-yard-line and only 4:54 left, it looked like the Old Guard would hold on.
Dallas went to its softer coverages, and Walsh took advantage by running sweeps—without blitzing or constant penetration, the pulling guards could get good blocking angles, and San Francisco ran its way out of the shadow of their end zone. They eventually worked their way down to the Dallas 6-yard line with less than a minute to go, facing third-and-goal.
Montana rolled right, under pressure. He decided to throw the ball away, but didn’t quite get it out of the end zone. It was Clark who skied and snared the ball by his fingertips. An epic Sports Illustrated cover caught Clark’s catch at its apex and it went into NFL lore as simply “The Catch.”
The game didn’t end there. A Cowboy field goal could still undo The Catch and White hit Drew Pearson over the middle and got to the 50-yard line. Pearson nearly pulled away, but Eric Wright grabbed the receiver’s jersey and hung on for dear life. One play later, gut pressure forced White into both a sack and fumble and the 49ers had won.
San Francisco’s win had already ensured a changing of the guard in the NFL. A new team was coming out of the AFC as well, with Cincinnati validating its #1 seed with two home playoff wins over Buffalo and San Diego, the latter played in frigid and windy temperatures. The Super Bowl would be the first one played at a non-warm weather city. Detroit, with the old Pontiac Silverdome, would host the game.
Continuing their pattern, Montana’s offense got on the board with a first-quarter touchdown and with the Bengals suffering turnover problems, The 49ers added another TD in the second quarter and followed it up with two field goals to take a 20-0 lead into the locker room. The lead could’ve been larger, as the Bengal defense had stiffened near the goal line on the last two scoring drives. But it was nothing compared to what the Frisco defense had in store for the nation.
Cincinnati cut the lead to 20-7 and then drove to the 1-yard-line for a 1st-and-goal. Big fullback Pete Johnson was one of the best short-yardage bruisers in the league. He went into the line once and was stopped. He went into the line again and was stopped.
On third down, Cincinnati threw a swing pass to the goal line, but an outstanding tackle saved the touchdown. On fourth and less than a yard, Johnson tried again. And again was stopped. Even though the Bengals did cut the lead to 20-14, the momentum seemed clearly in San Francisco’s direction.
The Niners used that momentum for a pair of time-consuming drives that both ended in field goals from veteran kicker Ray Wersching. The Bengals got another late touchdown to make it 26-21 but when the 49ers covered the onside kick, it was all over.
Not only were two new teams in the Super Bowl, but San Francisco’s win ushered in a new dynasty. The 49ers would win three more championships with Montana at the helm, another with Steve Young in 1994, while Walsh’s successor George Seifert would lead the way to two of those rings. Walsh’s West Coast offense revolutionized the game and his “Coaching Tree” of assistants became the most successful ever spawned.
It all began with the 1981 San Francisco 49ers and The Drive, The Catch & The Goal-Line Stand.
September is a month made for big college football games. More than any other sport, college football values its regular season. Even today, with four teams reaching a Playoff, big games in September shape the landscape for the rest of the season. The primacy of September was even more pronounced before the era of playoffs or guaranteed 1 vs. 2 battles. Today’s Notebook Nine focuses on the era of 1978-88 and selects the most consequential September college football games from that period.
1)Sept 23, 1978: USC 24 ALABAMA 14 Alabama finished #2 in the polls in 1977. The Tide opened up 1978 with a prime-time home win over 10th-ranked Nebraska, then beat a good Missouri team. USC tuned up with wins over Texas Tech and Oregon. The Trojans were coming off a disappointing ‘77 campaign, one that began with a home loss to Alabama. USC was looking for payback in this road game and they got it.
The Trojans intercepted ‘Bama quarterback Jeff Rutledge four times. A normally stingy Tide defense was being gashed by USC running back Charles White, including a beautiful 42-yard cutback run for a touchdown. The game was still close in the fourth quarter, with the Trojans up 10-7. But the USC collected four turnovers in the final period, and went on two touchdown drives that put the game away. The final was 24-14.
At season’s end, USC and Alabama were each 11-1 and the last two standing in the debate for the national championship. By that time, momentum was with the Tide, who had beaten top-ranked Penn State in the Sugar Bowl while USC’s last two wins–Notre Dame in the season finale and Michigan in the Rose Bowl–were marked with controversy. But the memories of what the Trojans did on this September afternoon was enough to get a split vote. Alabama and USC shared the national title in 1978.
2)Sept 25, 1982: PENN STATE 27 NEBRASKA 24 Penn State was coming off a top-5 finish in 1981 and had a potent offense, with Todd Blackledge at quarterback and Curt Warner in the backfield. Nebraska had ousted Oklahoma atop the Big Eight in 1981 and was ready to do more in ‘82. They met in State College and the game was everything you would want from a pair of national title hopefuls, each with coaches (Joe Paterno and Tom Osborne) after their first ring.
Penn State took a 21-7 lead, but Nebraska came grinding back and appeared to have won when they took a 24-21 lead with 1:18 to play. The kickoff went deep into the end zone, but the Cornhuskers committed an inexcusable special teams blunder–unsportsmanlike conduct after the whistle and gave the Lions a free 15 yards.
Blackledge went to work. He hit Kenny Jackson on a 4th-and-11 conversion and the Lions reached the Cornhuskers 9-yard line. Blackledge then connected with tight end Mike McCloskey at the two-yard line–a play where McCloskey was clearly out of bounds. With seven seconds left, Blackledge threw the game-winning touchdown pass and Penn State won 27-24.
The loss was Nebraska’s only one of the season. Cornhusker fans were rightfully rankled about the McCloskey “catch”, with Paterno admitting after the game the call was blown. Penn State finished the regular season 10-1. As an independent, they got a crack at top-ranked Georgia in the Sugar Bowl and won Paterno’s long-sought national championship.
3)Sept 19, 1981: CLEMSON 13 GEORGIA 3 Clemson was unranked, a program known more for being the foil to Ohio State in the 1978 Gator Bowl when Woody Hayes ended his career by punching a Tiger player on the sidelines. Georgiawas the defending national champion, had the great Herschel Walker in the backfield and were ranked #4 in the polls. They had already handed Tennessee their worst defeat in 58 years when this game went down in Death Valley.
The Clemson defense was aggressive and had excellent players at each level–William “Refrigerator” Perry up front, eventual ACC MVP Jeff Davis at linebacker and future NFL defensive back Terry Kinard. They shut down Walker and collected nine turnovers. Clemson won the game 13-3.
It was the start of an improbable run in a wild year for college football. Clemson didn’t lose the rest of the way and sealed the national title with an Orange Bowl win over Nebraska. Georgia won out during the regular season and went to the Sugar Bowl at #2, before losing to Dan Marino and Pitt.
4)Sept 27, 1986: MIAMI 28 OKLAHOMA 16 Both teams had a revenge angle going for them. Miami had gone into Norman and beaten Oklahoma 27-14 a year earlier. But the Hurricanes lost twice, while the Sooners won out and claimed the 1985 national championship. The rematch in South Beach was a 1 vs. 2 showdown, Oklahoma on top and Miami right behind.
The Sooners ran the wishbone offense, a three-back setup that kept the ball on the ground while still being high-octane and explosive. They had already a good UCLA team already. But Miami was ideally suited to match up with OU. The Hurricanes were one of the few teams who had the speed to match the Sooners on the edge. With Jerome Brown anchoring the interior, they could stop the fullback up the middle on the wishbone and use their speed to chase down the option.
Miami defended their turf with little problem. They led 7-3 at the half and they got a couple turnovers. Quarterback Vinny Testaverde hit four straight passes that produced two touchdowns and stretched the lead to 21-3. The final score of 28-16 was deceptively close. Testaverde all but sealed his landslide Heisman Trophy on this day.
This game was as big as advertised. By season’s end, Miami was 11-0 and ranked #1. Oklahoma was 10-1 and ranked #3.Penn State, also 11-0 was situated in between at #2. Instead of a Penn State-Oklahoma rematch in the Orange Bowl, the Lions would head west to face Miami in the Fiesta Bowl, where they won a national championship for the ages.
5)Sept 20 1980: NOTRE DAME 29 MICHIGAN 27 Notre Dame and Michigan each had respectable seasons in 1979. But respectable wasn’t what you played for in South Bend or Ann Arbor. Neither went to a major bowl game in ‘79 and were looking to get 1980 off on the right foot.
The Irish jumped out to a 14-0 lead. Michigan quarterback John Wangler–playing on an injured leg and affectionately called “Johnny Wangs” by head coach Bo Schembechler, played brilliantly and brought the Wolverines back to lead 27-26 in the final minute. Notre Dame drove into field goal range–but the last play would still have to be a 51-yard attempt into the wind. Irish kicker Harry Oliver hit the field goal and sent Notre Dame Stadium into a frenzy.
It was the start of a special ride for Notre Dame in Dan Devine’s last season. The Irish got to 9-0-1 and were in position to win a national championship before losing at USC in the finale, then dropping a tough Sugar Bowl game to Georgia. And Michigan? They bounced back. The Wolverines returned to the top of the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl. Then they did something their head coach had never done and that’s win in Pasadena.
6)Sept 10, 1988: NOTRE DAME 19 MICHIGAN 17 Notre Dame re-emerged as a national contender in Lou Holtz’s second year of 1987. Michigan was coming off a four-loss season and looking to re-establish themselves atop the Big Ten. The two rivals played one of their many terrific season openers under the lights at Notre Dame Stadium.
Ricky Watters made a big special teams play early for the Irish, an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown. Then the defenses and kicking game settled in. Michigan was able to take a 14-13 lead by the third quarter. Notre Dame never scored an offensive touchdown, but diminutive kicker Reggie Ho kept hitting field goals. His fourth one came with 1:13 to play and put the Irish up 19-17. The Wolverines stormed down the field and got a chance for a 48-yarder to win it. The kick just missed.
Notre Dame went on to win the national championship. Michigan got back to the Rose Bowl and won it.
7)Sept 3, 1988: MIAMI 31 FLORIDA STATE 0 Miami was the defending national champion. Florida Statewas the preseason #1 team. The Seminoles recorded a rap video proclaiming their greatness. FSU was led by Deion Sanders, loaded with both bravado and talent. And they had a chance to put an early stamp on this season with the season opener in prime time at Miami.
The Hurricanes took careful note of the talk coming out of Tallahassee, remembered it all, and then punished the Seminoles on the football field. Miami completely dominated in all phases of the game. It was 17-0 by halftime, ended 31-0 and never even seemed that close. The ‘Canes were immediately vaulted from #8 to #1.
Florida State never lost again and ended the year with a Sugar Bowl win over Auburn. Miami won another thriller over Michigan in September. The Hurricanes’ 31-30 win could easily have made this list, but using this game in conjunction with Notre Dame-Michigan was the best way to show how the 1988 season was shaped without overloading the list with all three games.
Miami’s famous October loss to Notre Dame, the Catholics vs. Convicts battle was what ultimately decided the national championship and the Hurricanes finished #2 in the final polls.
8)Sept 17, 1983: TEXAS 20 AUBURN 7 Texas was ranked #3 in the country and with an outstanding defense was thinking about a run for the national championship. Auburn’s national profile was growing under the leadership of Pat Dye and the running of Bo Jackson. That was reflected in a #5 preseason ranking.
The game in Austin was a late season opener for the Longhorns, but for UT fans it was worth the wait. They shut down Bo and won the game 20-7. Texas rolled on to an undefeated season. They were #2 in the polls, trailing only unbeaten Nebraska. Auburn won the remainder of its games, took the SEC title and entered the Sugar Bowl at #3 in the country.
The events of the bowl games that ended the 1983 college football season were historic. In a stunning upset, fifth-ranked Miami knocked off Nebraska. That made Texas’ crushing 10-9 loss to Georgia in the Cotton Bowl even more heartbreaking. Auburn, who survived Michigan in the Sugar Bowl ended up in the debate with Miami over who was #1. The ‘Canes won the vote.
The events of September 17 in Austin shaped the polls throughout the season and on through the finish. And they nearly decided the national championship.
9) Sept 29, 1979: OHIO STATE 17 UCLA 13 The Ohio State program was in a state of major flux. Woody Hayes had been fired in the offseason, Earle Bruce was the new head coach and the Buckeyes were unranked to start the season. UCLA was ranked #17 when the two teams squared off in southern California.
The bad year the Bruins would eventually have, finishing 5-6, was by no means apparent at the time and they bolted to a quick 10-0 lead. Ohio State pulled back even 10-10 in the third quarter before UCLA took a 13-10 lead. The Bruins missed a chip-shot field goal that would have extended the lead. Ohio State’s sophomore quarterback Art Schlichter got the ball on his own 20 with 2:21 left.
Schlichter calmly completed six straight passes, the last of which was the winning touchdown with 46 seconds left. The victory put Ohio State in the Top 10. They rolled on to an undefeated season and only a one-point loss to USCin the Rose Bowl kept the Buckeyes from a share of the national championship.
A World Series-Super Bowl parlay is rare, but the city of Pittsburgh pulled it off in 1979. The Steelers won a second straight Super Bowl and fourth in six years. The Pirates won their second World Series title of the decade.
The Steelers faced a growing challenge within their own division, from the Houston Oilers. Pittsburgh was able to hold off Houston to win the AFC Central title. When the Oilers upset Dan Fouts andthe San Diego Chargersin the divisional round of the playoffs, it set up a second straight AFC Championship battle between Pittsburgh and Houston.
The ‘79 AFC Championship Game was closer than the previous year and it was marked by dispute over “was it a catch or wasn’t it” on a third-down pass the Oilers attempted into the end zone in the third quarter. But the Steelers still controlled the line of scrimmage and won the game 27-13.
A rematch with the Dallas Cowboys would have been anticipated at the start of the playoffs, but the Cowboys were upset in the divisional round by the Los Angeles Rams. It deprived NFL fans of watching what was then the league’s best rivalry in the last year for legendary Cowboy quarterback Roger Staubach. But the Steelers-Rams Super Bowl was still pretty good.
Pittsburgh trailed 19-17 in the fourth quarter when wide receiver John Stallworth caught a 73-yard touchdown pass, going back over the wrong shoulder to make the play. The Steelers won 31-19.
The Pirates had a tougher road. They had to survive a tough NL East pennant race with an up-and-coming foe of their own, the Montreal Expos. The close-knit nature of the Pirates was underscored by their use of the song “We Are Fam-A-Lee” as their theme and the fans of Three Rivers belting out the song became a national storyline.
Even when the Pirates easily won Game 5, they still had to go on the road to finish the Series. Terrific pitching got them a win in Game 6. More of the same had them in striking distance in the sixth inning of Game 7, trailing 1-0. The great veteran first baseman, Willie Stargell, lifted a two-run homer just past the glove of Oriole right fielder Ken Singleton. The Pirates won the game 4-1.
It was the first World Series-Super Bowl Parlay for a city since Baltimore pulled it off in 1970. It would not happen again until New York did it in 1986. And a city with only one team per sport would not turn the trick until Boston in 2004.
MAGIC & BIRD
It remains the most-watched college basketball game in history. Michigan State and Indiana State met in the NCAA final at Salt Lake City. The Spartans were led by Magic Johnson. The Sycamores were carried by Larry Bird. The greatness of the two players was already being chronicled by contemporary media and their ultimate meeting highly anticipated.
The game itself was anticlimactic. Magic had more help, notably Greg Kelser in the low post and Michigan State’s 75-64 win was comfortable. But the NCAA Tournament was on the map and a significant benchmark in the development of the cultural event we know as “March Madness” was cleared.
While Magic and Bird were the focal points, there were two other nice storylines atthe 1979 Final Four. Ray Meyer, the long-time beloved head coach at DePaul, made his first and only Final Four. DePaul’s sizzling games with UCLA in the regional final and Indiana State in the national semis were the best games of the tournament.
Well, maybe reruns is a little too strong. But the seasons in college football, the NHL and the NBA had strikingly similar looks to what took place in 1978…
*Alabamaand USC had shared the national championship in 1978. They opened 1979 as 1-2 in the polls. They finished 1-2 in the polls. One half of football was the difference. USC took a 21-0 lead on Stanford, only to give it all back after intermission.
The 21-21 tie was the only blemish on the Trojan record and it was the break Alabama needed. A great defense keyed the Crimson Tide’s run to a perfect season. When Alabama easily dismantled sixth-ranked Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl they had a share of the national championship. Ohio State, who also enjoyed a perfect regular season, was nipped by USC in the Rose Bowl. The Tide were outright national champs. The Trojans were #2.
*USC did get to the top of the voting in the Heisman Trophy race, behind little Charles White, a running back with tremendous cutback skills and shiftiness. For the second straight year, White and Oklahoma’s Billy Sims were the best two backs in the nation. Sims had won the award in ‘78, but settled for second behind White in 1979.
*The Montreal Canadiens were aiming for their fourth straight Stanley Cup. In 1977 and 1978, the Canadiens had beaten their archrival, the Boston Bruins in the Finals. This year,Bostonand Montreal matched up in the semifinals. The series went to a Game 7.
The Bruins led 4-3 with under three minutes to play. Then they drew a penalty for too many men on the ice. The great Montreal scorer, Guy LaFleur, tied the game on the power play. The Canadiens won in overtime and then cruised through the Finals. It was getting harder, but Montreal was still knocking out Boston and winning Stanley Cups.
*The NBA Finals saw a rematch of theSeattle SuperSonicsand the Washington Bullets. The Sonics took a measure of revenge for losing Game 7 on their home floor in 1978. With Dennis Johnson playing great basketball on both ends of the floor, Seattle won the championship in five games.
No discussion of 1979 sports would be complete without reference to the terrible tragedy that befell the New York Yankees. The two-time defending World Series champs were having a rough year on the field. Off the field, it turned tragic on August 2. Thurman Munson, the catcher and team captain crashed his private plane and died. The death sent shockwaves through all of baseball. RIP to the Captain.
TheSportsNotebook’s review of the post-Woody & Bo era of the Big Ten continues today with a look back on the top stories of 1992 Big Ten football…
MICHIGAN TIES ONE ON
Michigan football was at the peak of its power in the modern era and the Wolverines easily won an outright conference title. Even though Desmond Howard, their Heisman Trophy-winning receiver from 1991, had moved on, Michigan was still loaded.
The offensive line had second-team All-Americans at guard in Steve Everitt and Joe Cocozzo. Rob Doherty at offensive tackle was All-Big Ten. This offensive line paved the way for the explosive Tyrone Wheatley who led the league in rushing and was named the Big Ten MVP.
Elvis Grbac was in his fourth year as the starting quarterback, both efficient and explosive. He had a future NFL wideout in Derrick Alexander as his primary target. There were great players at each level on defense, from tackle Steve Hutchinson to linebacker Steve Morrison to Corwin Brown at the corner.
No one could beat the Wolverines. Although in this pre-overtime era of college football, there were plenty of ties. Michigan tied Notre Dame in the season opener. The Wolverines tied Illinois and Ohio State to conclude the season. Michigan won all the rest. They claimed their fifth straight Big Ten title, with four of those championships being outright.
WISCONSIN UPSETS OHIO STATE
Ohio State started the season slowly, a reason that Michigan had the Rose Bowl bid already in hand by the time of the season finale in Columbus. The most damaging loss to the Buckeyes came in Camp Randall on the first Saturday of October.
Barry Alvarez was in his third year at Wisconsin and after a 5-6 season in 1991, the Badgers were hoping to get a bowl bid. This was an Ohio State team that had future #1 overall NFL draft pick Orlando Pace on the offensive line. The quarterback was the man who today is the face of college football–Kirk Herbstreit.
The Buckeyes took a 10-3 lead at halftime, but the Badger offensive line got settled in and put together long drives in the second half. Brent Moss rushed for 80 yards. Wisconsin pulled a 20-16 upset.
JUST MISSING BOWL GAMES
The biggest disappointment for the Big Ten was that only three teams qualified for bowls. Three others came up just short, finishing at 5-6…
*Wisconsin was the most notable. That win over Ohio State wasn’t quite enough. The Badgers were 5-5 going into their season finale against Northwestern. Trailing 27-25, UW was driving for a game-winning field goal before a fumble ended their hopes. Barry’s bowl breakthrough would have to wait another year.
*Indiana was 5-3 and looked ready to get another bowl bid for their consistent head coach, Bill Mallory. Instead, the Hoosiers lost their last three games, including a 13-10 loss at Purdue in the finale. The Boilermakers were not a good team, finishing 4-7. But they had the league’s Defensive Player of the Year in Jeff Zgonina. They had the Old Oaken Bucket. And they had deprived their biggest rival of a bowl. As four-win seasons go, that’s about as good as it gets.
*Michigan State took on a tough schedule and lost non-conference games to both Notre Dame and Boston College. The Spartans lost to the Big Ten’s three bowl teams, Michigan, Ohio State and Illinois. All that could have been survived, but a season-opening loss to Central Michigan could not. Sparty finished 5-6.
It’s worth noting that Iowa finished 5-7, but that’s not as close to a bowl as it would be today. The rules of the time required a team to finish over .500, meaning 6-6 would not have qualified.
WHEATLEY RUNS WILD
There wasn’t a lot of quantity for Big Ten fans during bowl season. Even quality was lacking, as Illinois lost to Hawaii and Ohio State fell to Georgia. But the Rose Bowl made the season. Michigan played Washington in a rematch of the 1991 game.
This was a big game for the Wolverines. Critics could point out that they had failed to beat the three most notable teams on their schedule (Notre Dame, Illinois, Ohio State). So while no one was beating Michigan, this was a program that needed a big W. Defeating Washington, who had shared the national championship a year earlier, would certainly qualify.
The game was a shootout. Michigan trailed 21-17 at the half. Wheatley came out in the third quarter and ripped off an 88-yard touchdown run to get the lead back. The Huskies responded with ten unanswered points. Wheatley ran in from 24 yards out and tied the game 31-all.
The Wolverines had the last word. Grbac threw a fourth-quarter touchdown pass. Wheatley finished with 235 yards on the ground. Michigan won 38-31 and finished #5 in the final polls.
The Notre Dame-Miami rivalry from 1988-90 is The Godfather of college football dramas. There was a first edition for the ages—the Catholics vs. Convicts battle of 1988. There was a second edition that was awfully good in its own right. And there was an underappreciated third part released in 1990. Today’s edition of The Notebook Nine hones in on those three years, picking the most memorable moments and storylines, three from each game.
Pat Terrell The Playmaker Any discussion about the events of October 15, 1988 in Notre Dame Stadium have to come back to Terrell. He made the play of the entire college football season when he batted down Miami’s last-ditch two-point attempt and preserved a 31-30 win for the Irish. Terrell was also a big reason Notre Dame was even in that position to begin with—in the second quarter, he picked off a pass that had been batted at the line of scrimmage and raced sixty yards with a Pick-6.
The Fake Punt Attempt Boomerangs Miami built their dynasty in the 1980s on being aggressive and taking chances. The game was tied 21-21 in the third quarter, but the Hurricane defense looked like they might be starting to assert themselves. Facing a 4th-and-4 just shy of midfield, Miami head coach Jimmy Johnson decided to try a fake punt. Notre Dame sniffed it out. Irish quarterback Tony Rice immediately made Johnson’s decision hurt, throwing a 46-yard touchdown pass to Ricky Watters. Notre Dame had the momentum back.
Notre Dame’s Near-Disaster There was 3:30 to play in the game and Notre Dame led 31-24. They had turned back two recent Miami bids to tie it up by forcing turnovers, one of them a hotly disputed play at the goal line. Now the Irish had the ball deep in their own end. But on 3rd-and-17, Rice was strip-sacked by Hurricane linebacker and future head coach Randy Shannon. Miami recovered and scored. Had they converted the two-point play—or even just kicked the extra point and taken a tie, the fumble would live in Irish infamy. Instead, it was forgotten.
Ned Bolcar’s Pick-6 Miami looked like the more motivated team when the rematch came on Thanksgiving weekend of 1989 down in the Orange Bowl. The Hurricanes led 10-3 in the second quarter and the Irish needed someone to make a play. That someone would be linebacker Ned Bolcar. He intercepted a Craig Erickson pass, got turned back upfield and made a nifty leap over a potential tackle to get in the end zone. Notre Dame, at least briefly, had turned the momentum and tied the game.
Bernard Clark Picks Tony Rice It was another interception that swung the momentum back the other direction. The game was still tied 10-10, nearing halftime and Notre Dame had the ball deep in their own end. Rice tried to force a pass over the middle. Clark, playing the middle linebacker spot, made the interception. Miami quickly turned it into a touchdown and a 17-10 halftime lead. Rice, normally very careful with the football and smart in his decision-making, had again tried to force something in the shadow of his own end zone.
3rd-and-44 If the Clark interception swung the momentum toward Miami, this play early in the third quarter sealed it. Miami was up against it. After converting a fourth down on their side of the field, Erickson had been sacked. The football got away. Notre Dame, rather than simply recover the football, had kicked it. Miami got the ball back, but facing a 3rd-and-44 inside their own 10-yard line, the Irish were about to get field position. Instead, Randall Hill ran a fly rout. A miscommunication between Terrell on the corner and safety Stan Smagala let him get open. An unbelievable first down was gained. Miami went on to the end zone and that was basically your ballgame. The ‘Canes won 27-10.
Rocket Launch Notre Dame’s lightning fast Raghib “The Rocket” Ismail was the top Irish threat, at wide receiver, running back and returning kicks. Now in his senior season, the Rocket was a known commodity and most teams didn’t even bother kicking to him anymore. Miami, with great team speed of their own, was less willing to give up field position. They kicked to the Rocket. And paid the price. Ismail took it 94 yards to the house and stopped what was some early Miami momentum.
Rodney Culver’s Race To The End Zone Notre Dame was holding on to a 22-20 lead and had just turned back a Miami drive with an interception. Ismail ripped off two big runs totaling 44 yards and put the Irish on the 21-yard line. With the game moving deep into the fourth quarter, a field goal would be huge, but a touchdown would be the dagger. Running back Rodney Culver slipped out of the backfield, caught a dump-off pass from quarterback Rick Mirer and then simply outran the Hurricane defense to the left pylon. At 29-20, the Irish were firmly in command.
Greg Davis Closes It Out Erickson led Miami on a last-ditch drive. Irish defensive back Greg Davis stopped it. He forced a fumble that was recovered inside the 5-yard line. It was the second time this season that Davis had delivered a big defensive play in the red zone. The other had been against Michigan. At season’s end, Davis was on the wrong side of tough clipping penalty call in the Orange Bowl that nullified a game-winning punt return by Ismail. But he deserves to be remembered for closing out the regular season’s two biggest games, rather than a 50/50 call at the end.