Two storied programs and two legendary coaches battled for a national championship at the 1986 Orange Bowl. . Barry Switzer’s Oklahoma program was looking for its first ring since going back-to-back in 1974-75. Penn State and Joe Paterno were undefeated and seeking their second national title in four years. Let’s take a look back at the paths the Sooners and Nittany Lions took through the 1985 college football season before meeting in Miami on New Year’s Night.
Oklahoma entered the season coming off a loss in the Orange Bowl, a defeat to Washington when the Sooners were ranked #2 and hoping to make their case to voters for the top spot. They came into a new season with a fresh offensive approach.
Thanks to a talented sophomore quarterback named Troy Aikman, Switzer was ready to move past his beloved wishbone offense and go with a more pro-style set. Aikman had a good target in future NFL tight end Keith Jackson and talented running backs that started with Lydell Carr and Leon Perry.
But it was the defense that drove the 1985 Oklahoma Sooners. Defensive tackle Tony Casillas won the Lombardi Award as the nation’s best lineman on either side of the ball. There were two All-Americans at linebacker, the legendary Brian Bosworth, along with Kevin Murphy. Sonny Brown was an aggressive defensive back, who picked off five passes.
Whatever offense they ran, the Sooners were going to be built on defense. And that would prove to save them in a season that took an unexpected turn at the midway point.
Oklahoma opened as the preseason #1, but didn’t play their first game until September 28, by which point they were #2. The first game at Minnesota was a tough 13-7 win, although this was a pretty good Golden Gopher team, coached by Lou Holtz, and good enough to get him the Notre Dame job at season’s end.
OU then crushed woeful Kansas State 41-6 and got set for the annual Red River Rivalry game with Texas. The Longhorns were ranked #17, and the Sooners only had one win and one tie against their rival in the previous six years. When Casillas sprained a knee and was lost for the rest of the game after three plays, it seemed like more bad luck was at hand.
Oklahoma took a 7-0 lead, but a fumble by Carr deep in their own end was returned 12 yards for a touchdown and it was tied 7-7. Early in the fourth quarter, speedy Patrick Collins took a pitch from Aikman and went 42 yards for a touchdown.
With the Sooner defense holding the Longhorns to just 70 yards of total offense, the 14-7 lead was more than enough. That’s how it ended, though the close nature of the game, Oklahoma slipped to #3 in the polls.
Casillas came back, but the Sooners soon had bigger injury problems. They hosted unranked Miami the week after the Texas game. Aikman broke his ankle in a 27-14 loss. There were no other quarterbacks who could run a pro-set offense. Switzer went back to his roots, re-installed the wishbone and plucked freshman quarterback Jamelle Holieway off the bench to run it.
Holieway, even playing a shortened season, ran for 862 yards, and his first game was a 59-14 win over an Iowa State team that won five games in 1985. The Sooners blew out another .500 team in Kansas, 48-6. OU crushed lowly Missouri 51-0 and shut out seven-win Colorado 31-0. The Sooners had found an identity, they were up to #5 in the polls and second-ranked Nebraska was coming to Norman.
Early in the game, OU was backed up on their own 12-yard line. They dialed up the tight end reverse and Jackson rumbled 88 yards for a touchdown. Nebraska drove down to the Sooner 6-yard line, but the defense stiffed, the Cornhuskers missed a field goal and Oklahoma was never challenged from that point forward.
Holieway took off on a 43-yard option run for a second quarter touchdown. It was 17-0 by the half and the lead grew to 27-0. Nebraska’s only touchdown came with 26 seconds left, and it was a fumble return. The dominance of the Oklahoma defense was complete and they were up to #3 in the polls.
The late start of the season meant there were still two more games and neither one would be easy. Oklahoma State and SMU each had winning teams in 1985. But the Sooner defense shut down #17 Oklahoma State and their explosive running back Thurman Thomas, winning the Bedlam Rivalry game 13-0. OU closed out the year with a 35-13 win over the Mustangs. They were still ranked #3 heading into the Orange Bowl.
After winning the national title in 1982, Penn State had slipped off the radar for two years. They went 8-4-1 in 1983 and then a 6-5 season in 1984 resulted in no bowl appearance.
The Lions would revitalize themselves with defense. Shane Conlan, a future NFL mainstay with the Buffalo Bills, was the latest outstanding linebacker in Happy Valley. Michael Zordich was an All-American safety and played for twelve years at the next level.
All the defense was necessary, but Penn State had a serious lack of firepower on offense. John Shaffer only threw for 1,366 yards, only completed 45 percent of his passes and only generated six yards per pass attempt. And he threw ten interceptions. None of his targets even mustered 300 yards receiving on the season.
D.J. Dozier was talented running back and ran for 723 yards but Penn State was clearly to win with defense. They opened the season ranked #18.
The first game was at Maryland, where the Terps were ranked #7, would ultimately win the ACC and were hungry to win this rivalry game, with the Lions having won 20 straight in the series.
It was 100 degrees on the field and the Penn State defense set the early tone. On the second play, Zordich picked off a Stan Gelbaugh pass and went 32 yards to the house. The Lions built up a 17-0 lead by the second quarter.
This was a Maryland team that had set an NCAA record the previous November when they rallied from 31-0 down to beat Miami 42-40 and the Terrapins came back again here, taking an 18-17 in the third quarter. But the Lions never let Gelbaugh get going, holding him to 12/28 for 167 yards. Penn State scraped out a field goal and then forced a turnover on their side of the field in the final minute to preserve a 20-18 win.
Penn State narrowly escaped a bad Temple team 27-25, and then had pedestrian 17-10 wins over poor opposition in East Carolina and Rutgers. It was hardly inspiring, but through attrition, they had moved up to #8 in the rankings when Alabama came to town.
The Tide was ranked #10 and ultimately finished the season 8-2-1. Penn State clung to a 12-10 lead when Shaffer was briefly knocked out, just in time for a critical 3rd-and-1 play on the Alabama 11-yard line. Matt Knizer came off the bench. Paterno called for a bootleg and Knizer took it around the end for a touchdown. It was the difference in the 19-17 win that moved the Lions to #6.
Penn State hosted decent teams in Syracuse and West Virginia and consecutive 27-0 wins were the result, pushing the Nittany Lions up to #3. They hosted Boston College, on a down season after the departure of Doug Flutie. Penn State barely escaped again, 16-12, but moved to #2. And after their 31-10 win at mediocre Cincinnati, the rise to the top of the polls was complete.
Paterno closed the year out with easy wins over Notre Dame & Pitt, 36-6 and 31-0, in each case against a team that needed the game for a winning season. The close nature of a lot of Penn State’s games didn’t give them a ton of national respect, but no one else had run the gauntlet without a loss and they were #1 in the country for the Orange Bowl.
The stakes for Penn State were simple—win and claim a title. For Oklahoma, it was more complex. Miami was nestled in between the two Orange Bowl opponents at #2. The Hurricanes had the head-to-head win over the Sooners, but the hype building up to the Orange Bowl suggested that if Oklahoma could take down the nation’s only unbeaten team, they were highly likely to vault the Hurricanes in at least one poll and possibly both.
Penn State surprised everyone when they came out, marched down the field and put it in the end zone on the first possession, grabbing a 7-0 lead. But that was it for the Lion offense. Their defense put up a noble fight, but without any support, Oklahoma just kept coming.
The Sooners got a field goal in the second quarter and then it was time for another big play from Jackson. After faking the option run, Holieway quickly dropped back and saw his tight end open down the middle. The 71-yard touchdown strike gave OU a lead it never relinquished.
They added two more field goals in the second quarter, before Penn State got a field goal back and made it 16-10 at the half. Oklahoma nudged the lead back out to 19-10 and every time the Lions seemed ready to get back in the game, the OU defense made a play. They intercepted Shaffer four times, winning the turnover battle 5-1. The coup de grace came late in the game when Carr rumbled 61 yards for one final touchdown in a 25-10 win.
As the game progressed, the news of what was going on in New Orleans furthered the excitement in the stadium. Miami was being routed by Tennessee, and it ended 35-7. NBC play-by-play man Don Criqui, calling the Orange Bowl, was saying unequivocally by the third quarter, “This game is for the national championship.”
And so it was. Switzer got his third ring. Aikman saw the writing on the wall and transferred to UCLA. It worked out well for everyone, as Aikman got better preparation for the NFL then he would have at OU. And Holieway kept running the Sooner wishbone to perfection, leading them to Orange Bowls in each of the next two years, although the inability to beat Miami in each year couldn’t be overcome.
As for Penn State, they too had a future ahead of them—they went undefeated again in 1986, went to the Fiesta Bowl and won the national championship over Miami in one of the great college football games ever played.