November, 13 2023
After years of wandering in the desert as a lower-tier bowl game, the Fiesta Bowl scored the coup of the twentieth century when it landed a #1 vs. #2 matchup in 1987. Not only did the Fiesta Bowl rise in national stature, its hosting of one of most compelling college football games in history helped to usher in the annual national championship game fans have come to expect in the twenty-first century.
The Fiesta Bowl began in 1971 as a late December showcase for the champion of the Western Athletic Conference (WAC), which included Arizona and Arizona State until 1978. Following those two schools transfer to the Pac-10, the Fiesta Bowl became unaffiliated with a conference champion and moved to an early New Year’s kickoff – Shopping for the best possible matchups. From 1978-1985, it often featured top ten teams, but it was still thought of as a consolation prize for teams that didn’t win the Big Ten, Pac-10, Big 8, or major independents that didn’t qualify for a title shot.
That all changed in 1987.
The top two teams at the end of the regular season were major independents Miami (FL) and Penn State. The traditional New Year’s Day bowl games of this era were obligated to invite the champions of the various major conferences: the Southwest Conference to the Cotton, the Big Eight to the Orange, the Pac-10 and Big Ten to the Rose, and the SEC to the Sugar. This led to numerous seasons in which the top two teams did not play at the end of the year. In fact, there had only been six bowl games matching #1 and #2 since the AP Poll began. Fans were hungry for a true title game and the stars aligned in 1987.
Unaffiliated with conferences, the Hurricanes and Nittany Lions could choose their own destinations and they had three unaffiliated bowl suitors: the Fiesta Bowl, Jacksonville’s Gator Bowl, and Orlando’s Florida Citrus Bowl. The Fiesta Bowl won out because of its recent track record of hosting top ten matchups…and the roughly $2 million per team they offered to pay Penn State and Miami didn’t hurt either.
The Fiesta also took the unprecedented step of moving its game from New Year’s Day to January 2 so the television audience wouldn’t be diluted by competing bowl telecasts. This standalone game is commonplace now, but it was shocking in 1987.
These machinations proved worthwhile as Miami and Penn State engaged in a game for the ages. The Hurricanes were brash and bold…and with good reason. They boasted an 11-0 record, Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Vinny Testaverde, an offense that averaged 38 points per game, and a defense that allowed only one team to score more than 20 points. Penn State was also undefeated but did not have a high-powered offense and was criticized for squeaking out some wins against weaker teams. In fact, pundits pointed out that in back-to-back weeks Penn State barley beat Cincinnati (23-17) while Miami mauled the Bearcats (45-13), proving the Hurricanes were vastly superior.
However, Cincinnati head coach Dave Currey stated that his up-close encounter with both teams led him to conclude there was just one major difference between Miami and Penn State. “The only place Miami has a big edge is quarterback. If Penn State can control the ball, it has less chance of beating itself. In a game like this, you’ve first got to not beat yourself.” His words proved prophetic, as Penn State controlled the ball…just not on offense.
As the game progressed, Penn State’s offense had only one sustained drive, but the Lions countered the Miami quarterback advantage by deploying a unique nickel defense. Instead of dropping five defensive backs into coverage, Penn State used five linebackers. The unique look camouflaged blitzes and coverages, taking away Testaverde’s short and intermediate passing game and forcing him into waiting for longer routes to develop. The coverage led to five interceptions, two apiece by linebackers Shane Conlan and Pete Giftopoulos, and one by defensive back Duffy Cobbs.
Combined with two fumble recoveries, the seven Miami turnovers kept Penn State in the game despite being outgained 445-162. When Testaverde connected with a receiver, members of the Lion secondary delivered crushing hits, forcing six dropped passes and cases of “alligator” arms. “They (Miami) talked about how small our defensive backs were,” Conlan said. “Our little guys back there were just rocking them. They didn’t want to catch the ball.”
Clinging to a 14-10 lead with three minutes remaining, Penn State’s defense had to just hold one more time, but it looked like Testaverde unlocked their secret. Testaverde completed a 31-yard pass to Brian Blades on fourth-and-six from his own 27. He then completed six straight passes to get to the 5-yard line with just under a minute to play. Testaverde was sacked on second down and pressured into an incompletion on third. Facing fourth and goal, Testaverde took the snap and found what he thought was an open receiver in the end zone, but Giftopoulos was able to roll his coverage at the last moment and picked off the pass that cemented Penn State’s second national title in five years.
Penn State’s national title was important in State College and Nittany Nation, but this game’s impact on the sport was immense. The first bowl game specifically scheduled to accommodate a standalone national title game showed what was possible. Patience with the current bowl system, already thin, evaporated rapidly and by 1992 the short-lived Bowl Coalition attempted to guarantee #1 vs. #2 matchups in the bowl season. It was succeeded by the Bowl Alliance, the Bowl Championship Series, and the College Football Playoff. Whatever its name, one constant has been the inclusion of the Fiesta Bowl, the upstart game from the desert that muscled its way to the front of the line thanks to a magical game on January 2, 1987.