Miami was the defending national champion, while UCLA had won back-to-back Rose Bowls. Both teams slipped from those lofty heights during the 1984 college football season. But they both made their way back to the New Year’s Day stage and met in the 1985 Fiesta Bowl. Here’s a look back at the paths the Bruins and Hurricanes traveled.
UCLA opened the season ranked fifth in the nation and had a future NFL quarterback in Steve Bono. The numbers weren’t dazzling for Bono, but his 54 percent completion rate was second-best in a Pac-10 that had good quarterbacks, and his six interceptions were the fewest among conference starters. It was the kind of high-efficiency work that kept him in the NFL.
Bono had a field-stretcher at receiver in future first-round draft pick Mike Sherrard, who finished with 38 catches for 635 yards. Mike Young was a quality second wideout, and Danny Andrews was a versatile running back who could also catch the ball.
The running game itself wasn’t great—Andrews only ran for a little over 600 yards—and the defense didn’t have any All-American talent. The weaknesses showed in the first three games. UCLA was unimpressive in beating weak teams in San Diego State and Long Beach State. Then they hosted top-ranked Nebraska and were physically manhandled in a 42-3 loss that dropped the Bruins to #17.
A 33-16 win at lowly Colorado didn’t prove much, and it was followed by a 23-21 upset loss at home to Stanford, against a Cardinal team that would finish sub-.500. UCLA then pulled out a couple more narrow escapes, 27-24 over Washington State and 17-14 over Cal.
The win over WSU was pretty good, considering the Cougars were a winning team that had the Pac-10 MVP in running back Reuben Mayes and a future Super Bowl MVP at quarterback in Mark Rypien. But Cal only went 2-9. UCLA had still yet to do anything impressive.
The Bruins went to Arizona State, and while the Sun Devils were a subpar team, they had a prolific passing attack. Jeff Van Raaphorst never made it at the next level, but he was one of the league’s best in 1984. The UCLA defense stood tall in a 21-13 win.
Another disappointing effort at home resulted in a 20-18 loss to mediocre Oregon and eliminated the Bruins from the Rose Bowl chase. They beat two-win Oregon State 26-17 and got set to face USC. Their archrival had already wrapped up the Rose Bowl spot and was doing some trash-talking. Trojan quarterback Tim Green promised a “whipping.” UCLA had bulletin-board material and the added enticement of the Fiesta Bowl spot if they could win.
Donahue’s team delivered its best performance of the season. They picked off Green three times and forced five turnovers in all. Andrews left the game with an injury in the second quarter and freshman Gaston Green entered to rush for 134 yards. UCLA was an easy 29-10 winner and after being unranked since the Stanford loss in early October, the Bruins were #14 when the Fiesta Bowl arrived.
Miami had a new coach coming off its miracle national championship. Howard Schnellenberger left and Jimmy Johnson took over. The ‘Canes were ranked 10th to start the year and opened the season against Auburn in the Kickoff Classic held in the Meadowlands.
Auburn was not only the #1 team in the country, but the Tigers felt (correctly) that they, and not the Hurricanes should have been voted national champs the previous January.
But Miami was ready. Alonzo Highsmith rushed for 140 yards, outperforming the great Bo Jackson, who ran for 96. Bernie Kosar threw for 329 yards, repeatedly connecting with Eddie Brown, who caught eight passes for 157 yards.
Kosar threw an early 17-yard touchdown pass to Stanley Shakespeare to give Miami the lead. Auburn tied it, and then got a safety when the Miami punter muffed a snap. The ‘Canes trailed 15-14 in the third quarter and both teams traded field goals. One more field goal by Miami with 6:08 left got them out of New Jersey with a 20-18 win.
Another tough game with an SEC opponent awaited. Seventh-ranked Florida would come to Miami. The Gators would win the SEC this season, though probation would prevent formal recognition of the title. They were the only team to have beaten Miami in the 1983 season and the Gators nearly did it again.
Kosar played well again, going 25/33 for 300 yards and Miami led 19-13 in the fourth quarter. Florida drove to the brink of the goal line, but Hurricane safety Ken Calhoun, who made the defensive play that had preserved the national championship win the previous year, recovered a fumble on the one-yard line. Miami continued to have problems with the punting game, with another muffed snap giving Florida a chance at a field goal…which they missed.
Finally, the Gators broke thorugh and took a 20-19 lead with 41 seconds left. Kosar went to work, and when he hit tight end Willie Smith on a 36-yard pass, it got the ‘Canes into field goal range. It was Smith’s 11th catch of the game and he finished with 152 total yards. Kosar found Brown on a 12-yard touchdown pass with seven seconds left. On the game’s final play, a Florida desperation pass was intercepted and brought back for a score, making the final a deceptive 32-20.
Because Miami’s season got an early start in the Kickoff Classic, they played two games before the next poll was taken and they were appropriately moved up to the #1 spot. But they played a very demanding schedule and a road trip to Michigan—even a team that would be mediocre by Wolverine standards—ended up in a 22-14 loss.
The Hurricanes bounced back with a 28-17 win at Purdue and future NFL quarterback Jim Everett, but Miami was then embarrassed by archrival and 15th-ranked Florida State. The 38-3 win sent the ‘Canes plummeting to #16.
A bounceback win over lowly Rice was followed by a trip to #16 Notre Dame. The Irish had their share of problems in the early 1980s, but this was still a team that would win seven games. Miami’s 31-13 win was impressive and got them back into the Top 10. They followed it up with three straight easy wins over bad teams in Cincinnati, Pitt and Louisville.
Miami was having no problems moving the football. Kosar threw for over 3,600 yards on the season, completed 63% of his passes and got 8.8 yards-per-attempt, all numbers that are good today and were positively dazzling in the world of 1984. He finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting.
The sophomore Highsmith rushed for over 900 yards and caught 37 passes out of the backfield. Brown was an All-American receiver with over 1,100 receiving yards, while Smith caught 66 passes for 859 yards in the tight end slot.
No, scoring wasn’t the problem in Coral Gables. Defense was, and it would be the reason that, with a #6 ranking, the season suddenly took a wrong turn of historic proportions.
Miami hosted a good eight-win Maryland team. The Hurricanes came out smoking and were up 31-0 at halftime. Then came the biggest collapse in college football history and they lost 42-40. After licking their wounds on that game, came an even bigger defensive debacle against Boston College on Black Friday. Miami scored 45 points at home, with Kosar throwing for 447 yards. And they lost 47-45, on Doug Flutie’s legendary desperation pass on the final play.
The Hurricanes were reeling, going into the Fiesta Bowl ranked #13 and looking for some way to find some defense.
There wasn’t a lot of defense to be found in Tempe on New Year’s Day and the back-and-forth action made for great television. UCLA took a 7-0 lead, but Miami responded with three straight touchdowns, including a 68-yard punt return from Brown.
The Bruins responded with a 72-yard touchdown run from Green, a safety and a pair of field goals—including a 51-yarder from Lee—to take a 22-21 lead into the locker room.
Bono threw two touchdown passes in the second half and UCLA took a 36-24 lead. But while Miami might not be able to hold a lead, they could still overcome this kind of fourth-quarter deficit. The Hurricanes scored two quick touchdowns of their own, but a missed two-point conversion in the process kept the lead at one point, 37-36, rather than stretching it to three.
It proved to be the difference. UCLA got the ball with 2:58 left, drove it down and won the game with a short field goal by Lee.
The 39-37 win marked the third straight major bowl win for UCLA, a streak they would continue at the following year’s Rose Bowl. As for Miami, they would most definitely be back. Johnson’s program would lose just four games over the next four years and win a national championship, all keyed by staff changes and massive improvements on defense.