March, 20 2023
Americans engaged in Friday-after-Thanksgiving activities watched a breathless contest between the defending champion Miami Hurricanes and the upstart Boston College Eagles. An interested observer may have been Ohio State running back Keith Byars. The weekend before, Byars had scored three touchdowns in the Buckeyes’ nationally televised 21-6 victory over Michigan. With over 1,700 yards rushing and a statement game, Byars was a top contender for the Heisman Trophy, so he had a vested interest in the action from the Orange Bowl.
Byars’ primary competition was BC quarterback Doug Flutie. Listed at 5’ 10”, Flutie was portrayed as a Lilliputian figure in a game of plus-sized Gullivers. Playing a schedule composed of mostly East Coast independent schools like Rutgers, Army and Temple, Flutie had become a serious Heisman candidate thanks to nationally televised games against Alabama and Penn State in which he played well (BC defeated Alabama but lost to Penn State).
Another stellar show on national television, especially against the defending national champions in the hostile Orange Bowl would help Flutie’s case. Flutie rose to the occasion, completing 34 of 46 passes for 472 yards and three touchdowns, but Miami’s Bernie Kosar almost matched Flutie pass-for pass, completing 25 of 38 for 447 yards and two touchdowns. A Boston College defense featuring Hall of Fame middle guard Mike Ruth seemed powerless as Kosar got into a groove.
Kosar, who had led Miami to its first national title in 1983, seemed set to be the hero once again after masterfully driving his team almost the length of the field during the final moments of the game. Trailing 41-38, Kosar narrowly avoided a safety before hitting a 20-yard strike down the field. With just 28 seconds remaining, Miami fullback Melvin Bratton scored the go-ahead touchdown to put Miami up 45-41.
“The only thought I had was that we had just lost the ballgame,” BC safety Dave Perelra told the Boston Globe. Taking over at his own 20-yard line, Flutie hit two quick passes to Troy Stradford and Scott Gieselman, moving to the Miami 48. An incompletion on the next play left BC with no choice but to run the play “55 Flood Tip,” in which three receivers race downfield together and Flutie throws it among them hoping one of them will either catch it or tip it to another. The play had worked against Temple earlier in the season. Flutie’s roommate, receiver Gerard Phelan, caught a 52-yard touchdown at the end of the first half of a 24-10 victory.
At the snap, wideouts Phelan, Stradford, and Kelvin Martin raced down the right side toward the goal line. As Flutie dropped back, Miami defensive lineman Jerome Brown was breaking free on his rush but tripped as Flutie rolled right. Flutie then unleashed an arc of a pass into the Miami night.
The ball seemingly flew over the heads of all defenders and eligible receivers, a poor pass that was missing the target. However, Phelan sprinted behind the gaggle of players and caught the pass in perfect position. It was almost as if the wideout had run a precise pattern rather than join the scrum at the goal line.
Boston College coach Jack Bicknell was pleasantly incredulous. “It’s supposed to go to Phelan so he can tip it to someone else. That’s the way it’s supposed to go, but if it hits you in the chest, catch it!”
A sheepish Flutie admitted that he thought he had overthrown the ball and was certain he had lost. It was only when he saw the reaction of the Miami players that he learned the Eagles had won. “They were all just standing there,” Flutie said of the Hurricanes.
The 47-45 victory had many ramifications. Although Flutie still had one more regular season game to play the following week against Holy Cross, the victory against Miami all-but-cemented his Heisman Trophy. Boston College teammates credited Flutie with metaphysical properties that the national press ran with. “It wasn’t God who caught the ball,” offensive lineman Jim Ostrowski said. “God threw it.” Somewhere in Ohio, Keith Byars could only watch with the rest of America. Byars finished runner-up to Flutie in first place votes by a wide margin (678-87).
Boston College also had a major bowl invitation riding on the game. A loss would have meant three defeats, a hard sell for national advertisers on New Year’s Day. With the win, the Cotton Bowl extended an invitation, Boston College’s first New Year’s Day bowl since 1943.
This game also marked Bernie Kosar’s last great moment in a Hurricane uniform and Jimmy Johnson’s ebb. The sophomore quarterback took extra courses over the spring and summer to graduate in 1985. Johnson turned the program over to Vinny Testaverde, Kosar’s back up, and recruited stalwarts like Russell Maryland to join Bennie Blades on defense. All three players had Hall of Fame careers, with Testaverde winning the Heisman in 1986. Johnson rose from this game to create a dominant program that won a national title in 1987.
But on this day, overstuffed and somnambulant Americans from coast-to-coast could only say, “Hail Flutie!”