The Road To The 1983 Fiesta Bowl: Arizona State & Oklahoma

The Fiesta Bowl had just become a major bowl following the 1981 season when they moved their game to January 1. The game following the 1982 college football season represented a modest step back for the bowl in some ways, when they paired up Arizona State and Oklahoma. Nonetheless, the 1983 Fiesta Bowl still brought together two good teams with a final Top 10 ranking on the line.

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I say the matchup was a step back because Arizona State played all its home games at the Fiesta Bowl and they were the program that usually got the invite in the game’s pre-January 1 period, as a way to juice up attendance. The Sun Devils played in five straight Fiesta Bowls from 1971-75 and won four of them.

ASU was also hungry for more than an invitation to play in their own backyard. With the Pac-10’s traditional power, USC, on probation and having started to show some modest cracks in recent years anyway, the hope in Tempe was for a Rose Bowl trip.

Head coach Darryl Rodgers was no less hungry for the trip to Pasadena—as the head coach at Michigan State he had won the Big Ten in 1978, but the program’s probation prevented the Rose Bowl reward.

This Arizona State team was built around a strong passing game led by quarterback Todd Hons. In a conference with several good quarterbacks, most notably John Elway at Stanford, Hons finished fourth in passing yards, completion percentage and yards-per-attempt.

Hons spread the ball around well, with no one particular receiver a standout, though Jerome Weatherspoon was the best big play threat. The running game was led by Darryl Clack, who was second in the Pac-10 in yards-per-attempt and tied for the lead in touchdowns.

But with the offense built around throwing the football, Clack still only went for a little over 600 yards. This offense was in Hon’s hands and the only problem was that the 14 interceptions were a lot, although in an era when turnovers were more frequent than they are today, it wasn’t a fatal flaw.

Defensively, Arizona State had two All-Americans in end Vernon Maxwell and defensive back Mike Richardson. Another defensive lineman, Jim Jeffcoat, would go on to a nice NFL career in Dallas. ASU was ranked #19 to open the season.

The Sun Devils opened with an easy win over a bad Oregon team, then handled mediocre opponents in Utah and Houston. ASU nudged up to #13 in the polls. They faced two teams with winning records in Cal and Kansas State and continued to win. That was followed by a 21-17 victory over Stanford, a team that only went 5-6, but had Elway in the fold.

Arizona State wasn’t dominating anyone, but the Stanford game was the only one that was really close and the pollsters moved the Sun Devils into the Top 10. They crushed woeful UTEP and were set to host 12th-ranked Southern Cal on October 30.

Hons connected with Clack for a 29-yard touchdown pass to give Arizona State a 7-3 lead, and after USC answered with a TD of their own, Sun Devil kicker Luis Zendejas hit a 52-yard field goal to tie it at halftime.

Cornerback Mario Montgomery made the biggest play in the third quarter, with an interception that both squelched a Trojan drive and set up a 54-yard TD march for Arizona State. The 17-10 win was preserved by a sack with 51 seconds left after USC reached the ASU 25-yard line. When the first rankings of November came out, Arizona State was at #4 and squarely in the national championship picture.

Arizona State nudged to #3 with a so-so 30-16 win against lowly Oregon State. The national title hopes in Tempe finally came to an end with a tough 17-13 loss at home against seventh-ranked Washington. It looked like the Rose Bowl was also dead, as the game gave the Huskies the edge in the conference race. But on November 20, Washington was stunned by rival Washington State and the door was open for Arizona State and Rodgers to get to Pasadena.

In-state rival Arizona was a pretty good team with a good head coach in Larry Smith, who would one day lead USC to three straight Rose Bowls. And the game would be in Tucson. But the Wildcats were still just 5-4-1 coming in, which makes the results on the Saturday after Thanksgiving as disappointing a game as the Arizona State program has ever played.

The secondary broke down, giving up long touchdown passes of 92 & 65 yards and the Sun Devils lost 28-18. They fell to #11 in the rankings and settled for the Fiesta Bowl trip.

Oklahoma’s presence in Tempe was another case of perhaps both the Fiesta Bowl and the team itself feeling disappointed. Certainly the Sooners were not happy with their 8-3 season.

And while it was great for the Fiesta to land a program that had been one of college football’s best, going 83-9-2 with a pair of national titles between 1973-80, it was also disappointing to take a team that had lost three-plus games for the second straight years.

Barry Switzer’s team wasn’t loaded with talent, like previous editions had been. They had only one consensus All-American in defensive tackle Rick Bryan. The poor passing numbers of quarterback Kelly Phelps weren’t unusual in Norman, but his lack of running ability were.

What Oklahoma did have was exceptional depth and talent at running back and it started with freshman Marcus Dupree, a magnificent combination of speed and size. Dupree finished with over 1,100 yards and his 7.8 yards-per-attempt was the best in the Big Eight.

Switzer’s stable of backs also included Stanley Wilson, with 910 yards, along with Fred Sims and Weldon Ledbetter, both of whom would have been the leading rusher on Arizona State. All four backs were in the top ten of the Big Eight in rush yardage and all were in the top six in yards-per-attempt.

OU was ranked #9 to start the season and they played a good West Virginia team at home to open the season. When the Sooners took a 14-0 lead it looked like business as usual in Norman. But the lead was cut to 21-20 by the third quarter and then Oklahoma fell apart in a 41-27 loss. They were punished harshly by the pollsters, falling completely out of the Top 20.

The Sooners beat Kentucky, but a 29-18 win over a team that ultimately finished winless wasn’t exactly inspiring. Nor was a home date with USC the following week—the Oklahoma faithful were hoping for a revenge for a 1981 loss in Los Angeles in the closing seconds, but instead watched as OU was shut out, 12-0.

Another unimpressive win against a weak team followed, 13-3 over Iowa State. There wasn’t a lot of reason for optimism on October 9 when the Red River rivalry with Texas came. The Longhorns were ranked #19

But the Oklahoma running game found its mojo on this day in Dallas. Dupree scored his first college touchdown on a 63-yard fake reverse and OU won the rushing yardage battle 384-163. The 28-22 win got the season back in track and a 38-14 blowout of lowly Kansas a week later got the Sooners back into the Top 20.

Decisive wins over Oklahoma State, Colorado and Missouri followed and Oklahoma was now ranked #11. More important, they were still undefeated in Big Eight play. They and Nebraska had again separated themselves from the rest of the conference and their Black Friday game in Lincoln would settle the league’s automatic Orange Bowl bid.

The season would end again in disappointment, as Oklahoma fell behind 21-10 and after closing to 28-24, a last-gasp drive ended with an interception. The Sooners would settle for the trip to Tempe ranked #12.

Fans got a good back-and-forth battle. Dupree was fantastic, going for 239 yards. Oklahoma led 13-11 at the half, with Arizona State scoring on a safety and also getting a 54-yard field goal from Zendejas. Clack and Sims traded touchdowns in the third quarter and Oklahoma still led 21-18.

The fourth quarter finally belonged to Arizona State, with a short touchdown run by Alvin Moore and 48-yard touchdown pass from Hons securing the 32-21 win. The Sun Devils finished #6 in the national polls, a ranking that had to soothe whatever residual hurt was there from missing the Rose Bowl. The Sooners ended at #16.