This column seeks to look back on memorable moments in college football and offer commentary on what makes them unique.
When DJ Khaled called upon Snoop Dogg to write a verse in his track “All We Do is Win,” the noted football connoisseur chose to illustrate the point by imploring the listener, saying, “Don’t mess with us, we like the U in the ‘80s.” He was referring to the protagonists of this week’s college football retrospective, the University of Miami. While they did, in fact, lose some games during that decade, 1982 was the only year where they failed to make the grade for the final Associated Press poll.
The ‘80s were a very different time in college football than 2020. The internet had yet to assert its dominance over our everyday life, so the best place to get into fights over sports was still at your local sports bar. There were five big TV channels, meaning the public at large would only get to see a handful of teams outside of their regionally broadcasted games every year.
Many households could not afford cable subscriptions that became the standard before landlines became obsolete. Nowadays, you can stream games for free, or if piracy is not your cup of tea, most major conferences have their own networks that have comprehensive coverage bundled into cable packages. Back then, conference affiliation was not as big of a financial boon to teams, and it was normal to see independent schools not named Notre Dame competing for national championships. One of those years was 1987.
Coming into the teams’ thirty-first meeting on Oct. 3, 1987, both the University of Miami Hurricanes and the Florida State Seminoles seemed to be making their respective cases for a Natty. Bobby Bowden’s Florida State University (FSU) opened the season by putting up 40 points in each of their first three games, going on to finish second in the nation for most points scored per game.
Jimmy Johnson’s University of Miami, on the other hand, had allowed just three points against a Florida team ranked 20th in the country in their first game and seventh to 10th ranked Arkansas on the road. Both coaches would be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame for the spells of dominance they oversaw at their respective programs.
Although Miami came into the game ranked third, it would be a stretch to call them favorites on the road in Tallahassee against an FSU team just one spot behind them in the polls. Both teams featured elite talent — future Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders covered future Pro Football Hall of Famer Michael Irvin.
Both teams favored the running game, with FSU averaging about 20 more rushing attempts than passing attempts per game and Miami favoring the ground game by about 10 attempts; the first quarter of the game reflected this tendency. Each team only tried passing the ball twice.
The 3-0 lead that Miami’s lone field goal accounted for spoke to the conservative approach each team took. The ground-and-pound football on display failed to dampen the crowd’s mood, which was electric throughout the game.
In fact, the crowd was so loud that FSU’s long-snapper mistook the cheers for the holder’s call for the ball, leading to a botched snap on their first chance to score points in the game. The play went so poorly that Miami ended up with the football inside FSU’s 30-yard line. That favorable field position saw Miami score a field goal on the ensuing possession.
FSU seemed to be floundering when, on third and long from their own 20-yard line, FSU running back Sammie Smith broke four tackles for a 64-yard run. This marked the beginning of a spell of domination for his team that would see them score 19 unanswered points. Miami’s defense, which had seemed so dominant in their first two games, just could not formulate an answer to Bowden’s no-nonsense running game.
The University of Miami, after falling behind by a touchdown, were forced to rely on their passing game to move the ball with more urgency, with mixed success. While Steve Walsh would connect with his receivers for big gains, the defense would frequently exert heavy pressure on the pocket, leading to sacks and poor decisions.
When Miami tried to counter this pressure with quick screen passes to running backs in the backfield, the FSU defense would have someone in man coverage to snuff it out. The Hurricanes were so out of sorts that it was not even safe to call a punt, as the Hurricanes’ first punt of the second half would be blocked for an FSU touchdown.
Noted FSU fan Burt Reynolds stopped by the broadcast booth for two possessions to provide insipid commentary. He also described a time when he threw the flaming spear before the start of a game.
This pregame ceremony stems from Bowden and his insurance agent, an alumnus, thinking it would look cool if a guy dressed up to look like a stereotypical Native American rode out before every game and threw something that was on fire. This tradition continues to this day. Some leaders of the Seminole Tribe of Florida have endorsed the school’s tradition, but I refuse to refer to a team that does not feature even a single member of the Seminole Tribe as the Florida State Seminoles.
Miami’s identity was less problematic but probably more widely despised. They were loud, and they were obnoxious. They fire a canon every time they score a touchdown at home games. The school’s transportation director set up exhaust pipes by the locker room tunnels so that the team would charge onto the field through a miasma of smoke. Their mascot is a rowdy Ibis — who, in 1989, would be arrested for trying to put out the flaming spear before that year’s Miami-FSU game. But, the Canes did not have much to brag about trailing 3-16 to their biggest rivals.
Following the blocked punt, the Hurricanes found themselves down 13 points. Walsh had completed just over a third of his passes on the day. Another three-and-out. Another scoring drive for FSU. Miami’s swagger was gone. With less than three minutes left in the third quarter, Miami had to come up with something fast.
On the first play of the drive, Walsh found Brian Blades open on an out route for 11-yards, but, again, he is hurried into an incompletion by FSU’s relentless pass rushing. Second and 10: a run for about six. Third down: a dump pass to running back. This was only the second drive in which Miami managed to get more than one first down.
Finally, on a play from FSU’s 49-yard line, Steve Walsh completed a pass to full back Melvin Braton for their first touchdown of the game. Following a two-point conversion to Blades, the receiver said something that earned him a stiff elbow from his man in coverage. Miami was back with a shout; 11-19, but they still needed a stop.
It did not look like that stop would come anytime soon. FSU was driving at will on the following possession. They were always ahead of schedule, having the freedom to call whatever they pleased on third downs, — if they even needed all three downs to move the chains.
This changed when Miami defensive end Danny Stubbs picked off a slip screen on second and long near midfield. While he failed to take it back to the house for a pick six, the play marked a turning point in the game. Following the interception, Walsh would connect with Michael Irvin for a touchdown, making the score 17-19.
Johnson decided to go for two points, and the gamble paid off again. But, if they wanted to win the game, they would have to stop FSU on the next drive, and it was looking as though they had failed to when FSU came out to kick a field goal from Miami’s 19.
The kicker missed. Miami drove right down the field to take a 26-19 lead, dropping off FSU at last chance saloon. Bowden managed to respond with a touchdown but found himself at an impasse. He had to decide whether to trust his kicker, who had already missed an extra point and a redzone field goal, to tie the game or to go for the two-point conversion and the win.
Bowden, lacking either faith or humility, chose wrong, ceding Miami the coveted Florida Cup. The Canes would go on to win Johnson his lone National Championship that year before he would coach the Dallas Cowboys to two consecutive Super Bowl wins in the early ‘90s. Bobby Bowden would never leave FSU, retiring as head coach in 2009.