The 1984 Boston College football season was a magical ride, one whose biggest moment lives on as perhaps the most famous sports play of the modern era. It was also the best team the program has produced since their undefeated season under Frank Leahy in 1940.
Doug Flutie was coming into his senior year at quarterback and in 1984 he was outstanding in every way for BC. Flutie completed 58 percent of his passes, an extremely good number in this era, especially considering how often the offense threw the ball. He finished with over 3,600 passing yards and a dazzling 30/13 TD-INT ratio. He was fully deserving of his landslide Heisman Trophy selection.
Gerald Phelan would catch Flutie’s most famous pass and Phelan caught a lot more, leading the team with 71 catches and 1,065 receiving yards. Troy Stradford was a solid threat running the football with 862 yard and 5.2 yards a pop. Stradford was also skilled coming out of the backfield as a receiver with 41 catches for over 400 yards.
The Eagle defense was led by All-American defensive back Tony Thurman. They weren’t an overwhelmingly talented team, but this was a program with momentum under head coach Jack Bicknell. He’d gotten them to bowl games in 1982-83, the first time in over forty years and now was aiming for a return to New Year’s Day. BC was ranked #19 coming into the season.
BC opened with a 44-24 tuneup win over Western Carolina and then traveled to play Alabama in a prime-time battle. The Crimson Tide were now two years removed from the leadership of the legendary Bear Bryant, but expectations were still high and ‘Bama was ranked #9.
Boston College dug themselves a 31-14 hole in the third quarter, including giving up a 99-yard kickoff return. Then Flutie started his Heisman campaign in earnest. He ran for one touchdown and threw for another. He completed 19/38 passes for 254 yards. The Eagles won the turnover battle 6-2 and eventually pulled even 31-31. Stradford won the game with 42-yard touchdown jaunt with 3:26 left.
The 38-31 win vaulted BC to #10. This wouldn’t be a very good Tide team by the time all was said and done, as they finished 5-6. But it was a huge marquee win for the Eagles and with top teams falling left and right in the early part of 1984, Boston College was up to #4 by the time they played another game two weeks later.
BC then started a run of games against teams that would win between five and seven games. The Eagles blew out North Carolina 52-20 and got by Temple 24-10. But a road trip to West Virginia resulted in the first loss, a 21-20 nailbiter that pushed Boston College down to #11 in the rankings.
A 35-23 win over Rutgers followed, but BC gave it right back when they went to Penn State, where Joe Paterno was struggling with one of his worst teams to date, and lost 37-30. Beating Army 45-31 and then knocking off Syracuse 24-16, in a game played in Foxboro, got Boston College back on track and had them ranked #10 with the season finale in Miami.
It was the Friday after Thanksgiving and from the BC standpoint, there wasn’t a lot on the line. Heisman ballots were usually turned in by this time and it’s impossible to suggest that Flutie’s hold on the trophy would be impacted by this game. Boston College had already accepted a bid to the Cotton Bowl. For a game that was meaningless, it proved to be as meaningful as you could imagine.
Flutie and Miami counterpart Bernie Kosar put on a passing display for the ages. Flutie threw for 472 yards, while Kosar threw for 447. Over the last quarter-plus there were six lead changes. The fifth of those changes came on a Hurricane touchdown with 28 seconds left that put them on top 45-41. BC got the ball back on their own 20, pushed to midfield and had time for one play.
What happened next became one of the most popular highlights of all-time. Flutie dropped back, launched the ball towards the end zone. Amidst a sea of bodies in the end zone, Phelan caught the pass. It was “The Magic Flutie” and it resulted in a 47-45 win and a lasting legend for both Flutie and Phelan.
The Cotton Bowl was the “home” bowl to the old Southwest Conference. A strange year in the SWC produced a mediocre representative, in four-loss Houston. Combine that with blustery weather in Dallas on New Year’s Day and attendance was the lowest for the Cotton Bowl since 1948. Flutie did not play well, completing just 13/37 passes for 180 yards.
Flutie’s teammates had his back though, with Stradford and #2 running back Steve Strachan muscling for almost 300 yards between them.
Boston College built up a 31-14 lead, but a Pick-6 thrown by Flutie got momentum moving in the other direction and the lead was cut to 31-28. In recent years, BC fans had already seen their basketball team lose a big game to Houston—a regional final in the 1982 NCAA Tournament. Now it seemed like a major bowl win might be slipping away.
But the Eagles went back to Stradford and Strachan and pounded their way to an insurance touchdown and then tacked on one more for icing on the cake. Boston College had shown their versatility, winning a big game when their star quarterback was struggling. The 45-28 win gave them a Top 5 national finish.
The program has had special moments since—giving a Super Bowl-winning head coach in Tom Coughlin his start, along with a good NFL quarterback with Matt Ryan. But BC has not been on the major bowl stage since Doug Flutie and the magic of 1984.