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1987 Fiesta Bowl

1987 Sunkist Fiesta Bowl
National Championship Game
1 2 3 4 Total
Miami 0 7 0 3 10
Penn State 0 7 0 7 14
Date January 2, 1987
Season 1986
Stadium Sun Devil Stadium
Location Tempe, Arizona
MVP D.J. Dozier, Shane Conlan
Favorite Miami
National anthem Penn State Blue Band
Referee Jimmy Harper (Southeastern Conference)
Halftime show Band of the Hour, Penn State Blue Band
Attendance 73,098
United States TV coverage
Network NBC
Announcers: Charlie Jones, Bob Griese, Jimmy Cefalo, Bob Costas (pregame), Ahmad Rashad (sideline)
Nielsen ratings 24.9
Fiesta Bowl
 < 1986  1988

The 1987 Fiesta Bowl was a college football bowl game that served as the final game of the 1986 NCAA Division I-A football season. The game was the 16th edition of the Fiesta Bowl, played annually since 1971 at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona.

This particular Fiesta Bowl was played on January 2, 1987 and pitted the #1 Miami Hurricanes against the #2 Penn State Nittany Lions, with the national championship going to the winner. Due to this implication, the organizers of the Fiesta Bowl — which, since it established itself as a January bowl, had been played in the afternoon — agreed to push the game back one day from its usual January 1 date.

The game was carried by NBC, per their contract to carry the Fiesta Bowl, and was the most watched college football game in history to that point (and remains the most watched college football game in history as of 2013). The ratings record is one that may never be broken, considering college football ratings have dropped since the major postseason games switched to pay television in 2011.


  • Bowl selection 1
  • Teams 2
    • Miami Hurricanes 2.1
    • Penn State Nittany Lions 2.2
  • Bowl arrangements 3
  • Pre-game buildup 4
  • Game summary 5
  • Scoring summary 6
    • First quarter 6.1
    • Second quarter 6.2
    • Third quarter 6.3
    • Fourth quarter 6.4
  • Game's legacy 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9

Bowl selection

Although the Fiesta Bowl had been played on New Year's Day since the 1982 game, it was not considered by many to be a major bowl game. Instead, that distinction was given to four other New Year's bowls— the Cotton Bowl, Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl, and Orange Bowl were all considered major bowls. Each of these bowls was required to take at least one conference's champion as per their charters regardless of the team's rank; the Southwest Conference champion hosted the Cotton Bowl, the Big Ten Conference and Pac-10 Conference played each other in the Rose Bowl, the Big 8 Conference champion hosted the Orange Bowl, and the Southeastern Conference champion hosted the Sugar Bowl. The Fiesta Bowl had no tie-in with any conference at the time and thus was free to choose who they wanted to play in the game.

Although Penn State and Miami are both members of conferences today, in 1986 this was not the case. Both schools, along with several other high profile schools, operated as independents in football and thus did not have an automatic tie in to a bowl game. It was possible for an independent to play for a national title, however, provided that the #1 or #2 team in the country was playing in the Orange or Sugar Bowls; the organizers would simply invite that team to their bowl to create a national championship game. In fact, both Penn State and Miami's previous national championships were won this way. The Sugar Bowl. The next season, Miami had a chance to win the national title in their home stadium against #1 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl and did.

As the 1986 season came to an end, it became clear that something would have to be done regarding the national championship. All of the bowl games had been set except for the one that Miami and Penn State would be playing in for the national championship. The Fiesta Bowl selection committee's only opposition came from the organizers of the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, which like the Fiesta Bowl was not locked in to taking anyone from a conference. The bidding process resulted in the game being awarded to the Arizona bowl,[1] and this allowed the Fiesta Bowl to gain much more national prestige than it had before and eventually enabled it to replace the Cotton Bowl as one of the four major bowl games; the Fiesta Bowl became part of the Bowl Alliance and Bowl Championship Series years later.

As noted above, the Fiesta Bowl was usually played in the early afternoon (MST). At the time, the structure of the New Year's Day games saw the Citrus and Cotton Bowls played first, with the Fiesta and Rose Bowls starting around the same time and the Orange and Sugar Bowls played at night at the same time. NBC at the time was the television home for three of the aforementioned bowls, and if the national title was to be decided in one of them airing the Fiesta Bowl early in the day would have been of little benefit. This brought about the shift in dates to the 2nd of January, which ensured the game would not face any competition from any other bowl game that might have been played at the time and helped it gain the record-setting audience it pulled in.


Oklahoma and Michigan began the season ranked at #1 and #2 respectively, but the Wolverines slipped to #3 behind Miami following the Hurricanes 23-15 defeat of #13 Florida on September 6. A 28-16 defeat of Oklahoma by #2 Miami on September 27 pushed Miami into the #1 ranking, with Alabama moving into the #2 spot. However, Alabama lost to Penn State 23-3 on October 25, a result that jumped the Nittany Lions to the #2 spot behind Miami.[2] Michigan regained the #2 spot after their 31-7 victory over Purdue, coupled with Penn State's close 17-15 victory over un-ranked Maryland that same day. But, the following week, Penn State once again found itself ranked #2 following Minnesota's 20-17 upset victory over Michigan.[3] Penn State then finished out the regular season on November 22 with a 34-14 victory over in-state rival Pitt, while Miami finished their season the following Thursday with a 36-10 victory over East Carolina to set up the #1 vs. #2 showdown.

Miami Hurricanes

Miami entered the game with a seemingly unstoppable team. The Hurricanes had outscored their opponents during the season 420-136 en route to a perfect regular season. They had held the #1 ranking since handing the reigning champion (and eventual #3) Oklahoma Sooners their only loss during the fourth week of the season. The 1986 Heisman Trophy winner, Vinny Testaverde starred at quarterback. The team also featured All-Americans Jerome Brown and Bennie Blades on defense, future NFL Hall-of-Famer Michael Irvin at wide receiver, and running back Alonzo Highsmith, the eventual No. 3 pick in the 1987 NFL draft.

Penn State Nittany Lions

Penn State came into the game with a different pedigree. Also 11-0 and undefeated, the Nittany Lions had nonetheless looked rather beatable, with close wins against Cincinnati, Maryland, and Notre Dame, all teams with .500 records or worse. However, the Lions relished their underdog status and their ability to shut teams down with a stifling, highly rated defense. They had All-Americans at linebacker (Shane Conlan), defensive tackle (Tim Johnson), running back (D.J. Dozier) and offensive tackle (Chris Conlin). "We were a team that couldn't be intimidated, and that's what Miami liked to do to other players," linebacker Pete Giftopoulos later observed. "How are you going to intimidate a bunch of steel-town kids from Pittsburgh, Ohio, Pennsylvania? You just can't do that." [4]

Bowl arrangements

An Arizona State win over Cal, combined with a UCLA loss to Stanford, enabled the Sun Devils to clinch the Pac-10 and Rose Bowl Berth on November 8.[5] The early clinching of the Rose Bowl bid for Arizona State began a scramble for all the Bowl games to confirm teams before the bids were to be extended on November 22. The Michigan loss on November 15 set Miami and Penn State at #1 and #2. The Cotton Bowl offered to take the loser of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry game, as the winner would go to the 1987 Rose Bowl. With Penn State and Miami already written off to the bidding winner between the Fiesta and Citrus bowls, the other bowls made similar arrangements to take second-place teams.

With Miami and Penn State the top 2 teams in the nation, and both independent teams unaffiliated with any conferences or bowl tie-ins, there was an opportunity to create a #1-2 matchup in what were widely seen as a second-tier bowls[6] By November 17, The Citrus Bowl, which had planned to pay $875,000 per team, was offering about $2.6 million apiece to Miami and Penn State to land the game; the Fiesta, which normally pays $1.1 million per, was offering around $2.4 million and was poised to go higher. The Sugar Bowl, Cotton Bowl and Orange Bowl all had payouts in the neighborhood of $2 million.[1] The Rose Bowl paid $6 million per team.[2]

This would be only the 21st time since 1936 that #1 would face #2, and only the 7th time in a Bowl game. It was only the fifth time in college football history that there had been two #1 vs #2 games in the same football season.

Pre-game buildup

The game was described by many commentators as a battle between "Good versus Evil."[6]

On the flight to the game the entire Miami Hurricane team changed into military-style fatigues to play into the "warfare" element of the contest. The game had been referred to as the "Duel in the Desert."

Reggie Taylor of the Cincinnati Bearcats, who had played both teams said, "It's harder to run against Penn State. They're so disciplined you can't exploit their weaknesses as much." Defensive tackle Bob Leshnak said, "Miami's center [Gregg Rakoczy] is the best I've faced. Our line moves a lot, and it gave Penn State problems." Cincinnati coach Dave Currey said, "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."[7]

Game summary

Penn State wore their blue home jerseys, while Miami wore their white road jerseys.

Miami vastly out gained Penn State on the field, 445 yards to 162, with 22 first downs compared to the Nittany Lions' 8. However, the Hurricanes were hampered by 7 turnovers, including 5 interceptions of the Heisman-winning Testaverde.

The majority of the game was a seesaw battle. Miami's only touchdown was the result of a John Shaffer fumble that the Hurricanes recovered at the Penn State 23. Miami then took four plays to score the go-ahead touchdown.

The Nittany Lions responded with their only sustained drive of the night, going 74 yards in 13 plays, culminating in Shaffer's 4-yard scamper into the end zone. The halftime score was a 7-7 tie.

After Miami scored a field goal to retake the lead, Shane Conlan grabbed his second interception of the night, returning it 39 yards to the Miami 5. The first Penn State snap was fumbled, but the Nittany Lions recovered. D.J. Dozier then followed with a 6-yard run for the go-ahead touchdown.

Miami still had over 8 minutes on the clock, but fumbled on their next possession. With Penn State unable to move the ball, Miami began their last drive on their own 23 with 3:07 left in the game. A 4th-down completion to Brian Blades went for 31 yards and moved Miami into Penn State territory.[8] With a minute left, Testaverde hit Michael Irvin at the Penn State 10. The connection put the Hurricanes inside the 5 with 45 seconds left. Even with a national championship at stake, though, Penn State linebacker Pete Giftopoulos said the Penn State defense stayed calm. "We had some great leaders -- (seniors) Shane Conlan, Timmy Johnson, Bob White," he said. "They were key character people. To not see any fear in their eyes helped me as a junior and helped the other players to play the game. ... Nobody was losing it in the huddle, nobody was screaming. Everyone was like, 'Here's the play; let's do it.'"

On second-and-goal, Testaverde dropped back, but Tim Johnson broke free and sacked him. On third down, Testaverde threw incomplete into the flat. On fourth-and-goal, with 18 seconds left, Testaverde threw to the end zone, but was intercepted by Giftopoulos. The interception, Giftopoulos' second of the game (and Testaverde's fifth), ensured Penn State's second national title in five years.[6]

Scoring summary

First quarter

  • None

Second quarter

  • Miami (FL) - Melvin Bratton 1-yard touchdown run (Cox kick good). (6:38) 7-0 Miami (FL)
  • Penn State - John Shaffer 4-yard touchdown run (Manca kick good). (1:14) 7-7 Tie

Third quarter

  • None

Fourth quarter

  • Miami (FL) - 38-yard field goal by Mark Seelig. (11:49) 10-7 Miami (FL)
  • Penn State - 6-yard touchdown run by D.J. Dozier (Manca kick good). (8:13) 14-10 Penn State


Game's legacy

This was a game of many firsts:


  1. ^ a b Looney, Douglas S. - College Football. Sports Illustrated, November 17, 2008.
  2. ^ a b Looney, Douglas S. - A Midseason Run For Respect. Penn State made believers out of 'Bama and gave two minor bowls major hopes for New Year's Day. Sports Illustrated, November 3, 1986.
  3. ^ Neff, Craig - Bo Tries On A Tie, Gets A Boot. Sports Illustrated, November 24, 1986
  4. ^ Dan O'Sullivan, 1987 - Penn State 14, Miami 10
  5. ^ Reilly, Rick - Coming Out Of The Desert Darkness With The Sun Devils. Sports Illustrated, November 17, 1986
  6. ^ a b c Michael Weinreb, The Night College Football Went To Hell
  7. ^ Hersch, Hank - A Struggle For Visibility And Credibility. Sports Illustrated, November 24, 1986
  8. ^ a b Penn State 2005 Football Media Guide

External links

  • E-Ticket - Michael Weinreb, The Night College Football Went To Hell
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