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B1G Historical Perspective: The Day The Meteor(s) Landed

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Taking a look back to three major upsets on January 1, 1986; and how they impacted four present-day B1G teams.

UCLA tailback Eric Ball rushing for some of his 227 yards against Iowa in the 1986 Rose Bowl
ESPN Photo

The 1985-86 bowl season had significant implications for three (present-day) Big Ten members; Penn State, Iowa, Michigan, and Nebraska. Penn State was sitting at 11-0 and ranked #1 in the AP Poll as they prepared to face the #3 ranked Oklahoma Sooners in the 1986 Orange Bowl. #4 Iowa was 10-1 as they prepared to play #13 (and 8-2-1) UCLA in the 1986 Rose Bowl. In relative obscurity in The Valley of the Sun (as this game wasn’t quite the major bowl game it is today), #5 ranked Big Ten runner-up Michigan (9-1-1) prepared to play #7 ranked Big Eight runner-up Nebraska (9-2) in the 1986 Fiesta Bowl.

Penn State’s path to their second National Championship in 3 seasons was easy, beat the Sooners in the Orange Bowl. Iowa had a puncher’s chance at perhaps a split national championship: blow out the Bruins in the Rose Bowl; and get some help from the Sooners in the Orange Bowl and the 8-1-2 Tennessee Volunteers in the 1986 Sugar Bowl (who were taking on the #2 ranked and 10-1 Miami Hurricanes). Michigan didn’t have a path to the National Championship, as a 3-3 tie versus Illinois in Champaign derailed any hopes at a #1 ranking (and cost the Wolverines a share of the Big Ten title). That said, the events of that New Years Day would propel Bo Schembechler’s Wolverines towards something rather special.

At Sun Devil’s Stadium in Tempe, Nebraska jumped out to a 14-3 halftime lead versus Michigan behind 2 touchdowns from tailback (I-back) Doug DuBose. However, one of two things might have happened at halftime: either Michigan had their collective asses chewed out by Bo Schembechler and/or Dr. Tom Osborne’s Cornhuskers thought they had the game in the bag. To begin the second half, Michigan got a quick touchdown off of a Doug DuBose fumble. On their next series, Nebraska’s punt was blocked and the Wolverines got another quick touchdown. With another touchdown and a field goal in the third quarter, Michigan turned a 14-3 deficit into a 27-14 lead.

In the fourth quarter, Cornhusker backup quarterback Steve Taylor got a touchdown. The final points came with under 2 minutes to go when Michigan punter Monte Robbins took an intentional safety. Nebraska threw an interception on their last series; and Michigan held on for a 27-23 win. This game went somewhat as expected. That wouldn’t be the case for the Rose, Sugar, and Orange Bowls.

Out in Pasadena, Iowa head coach Hayden Fry could have surpassed Forest Evashevski for all-time victories as the Hawkeye’s coach. An impressive performance against the UCLA Bruins, coupled with upsets in Miami and New Orleans (which as it turned out, actually occurred) might get the Hawkeyes back to #1 in the AP and/or Coaches Polls. Iowa had a dominating pro-style offense led by Heisman Trophy runner-up Chuck Long. UCLA’s offense seemed to be in doubt, as starting tailback Gaston Green was injured. That said, this is the Rose Bowl we’re talking about, and strange things happened to highly-ranked Big Ten teams back then when they made the trip west.

For Iowa said strange thing was freshman tailback Eric Ball coming off of the bench and running over, around, and through the Hawkeyes defense. Led by Ball’s touchdown runs of 30, 42, and 24 yards; UCLA took a commanding 24-10 lead on Iowa. Things didn’t go much better for Iowa in the second half. Hawkeye tailback Ronnie Harmon uncharacteristically had four fumbles. This, coupled with Chuck Long’s four sacks, severely limited Iowa’s offense. The second-half was rather close, with UCLA outscoring Iowa 21-18. However, the first half damage was too great for the Hawkeyes to overcome. The Bruins won the 1986 edition of The Granddaddy of Them All 45-28. One upset’s in the books.

As the New Years afternoon turned to evening, college football fans – including this ‘writer’ – faced a dilema. Do you watch ABC’s coverage of the Miami versus Tennessee Sugar Bowl; or NBC’s coverage of the Penn State versus Oklahoma Orange Bowl. I opted for the Sugar Bowl, flipping over to the Orange Bowl during commercials. As an aside, there’s wasn’t much of a decision earlier in the day. I tuned into NBC’s coverage of the Fiesta Bowl, as the Auburn versus Texas A&M Cotton Bowl (on CBS) turned into an Aggie rout (in Bo Jackson’s final college football game).

Down in New Orleans, Tennessee appeared to be over-matched against Jimmy Johnson’s #2 Hurricanes. This Miami team featured an NFL roster that included Vinny Testaverde, Michael Irvin, Jerome Brown, Alonzo Highsmith, and Bennie Blades. Eight-win Tennessee was led by backup quarterback Darryl Dickey (filling in for injured Tony Robinson). Miami looked dominant on their opening drive, marching down the field for a quick touchdown on a Testaverde to Irvin completion. This turned out to be Miami’s final score of the game. Tennessee outscored Miami 35-0 for the rest of the game; using a strategy of blitzing Testaverde and waiting for him to self-destruct (a strategy used by Penn State one year later in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl). That would be upset #2, pending the outcome of the Orange Bowl.

Down in Miami, Penn State seemed poised to claim the second National Championship for Joe Paterno. The Nittany Lions were led by the power running of tailback D.J. Dozier and a dominating defense led by linebacker Shane Conlin. Barry Switzer’s Sooners finished the season at 10-1; however, like Tennessee they lost their starting quarterback Troy Aikman (yes, that Troy Aikman) to injury in a home loss to (ironically) Jimmy Johnson’s Miami Hurricanes. After Aikman’s injury, Switzer tuned Oklahoma’s wishbone offense to more running; which fit true freshman quarterback Jamelle Holieway’s skill set. And like Penn State, the Sooners featured a dominating defense, also led by a linebacker in one Brian Bozworth (aka “The Boz”).

Oklahoma quarterback Jamelle Holieway running the option in the 1986 Orange Bowl
AP Photo/Joe Skipper, File

As the Orange Bowl started, Penn State jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead. However, Holieway connected with tight end Keith Jackson (not the Keith Jackson who was calling the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans) on a (rare) 71 yard touchdown pass. Oklahoma began to find their way on offense, as Penn State uncharacteristically was turning the ball over and committing penalties, giving the Sooners a 16-10 halftime lead. Oklahoma shut out Penn State in the second-half 9-0 and earned the 25-10 victory. Brian Bozworth finished the game with 12 tackles, Penn State quarterbacks threw four interceptions, and Jamelle Holieway became the first true freshman quarterback to lead his team to the National Championship (more than 12 years before Tua Tagovailoa was born).

The Orange Bowl was the third major upset on this New Years Day, as the #1, #2, and #4 teams in the Associated Press polls all went down to defeat. These upsets had an impact upon the Michigan Wolverines. With their come-from-behind win against Nebraska, Michigan finished the 1985-86 season ranked #2 in the Associated Press poll: their highest ranking of the Bo Schembechler era. Here’s Bo’s reaction to the victory against Nebraska out in Arizona that New Years Day.

Historical Perspectives

Northwestern - The Upset

Purdue - The Forward Pass Comes to the Midwest

Indiana - The Real Game of the Century

Nebraska - Surrender Whites

Michigan State - Earning a Rematch

Rutgers - A Program-Changing Season

Illinois - Running the Table

Maryland - Frank Reich’s First Comeback

Minnesota - The Field Goal

Iowa - Another Field Goal (Actually Four of Them)

Penn State - $20,000 a Point

Michigan - Strike a Pose

Ohio State - EARLE

Wisconsin - 12,000 Trip to the Rose Bowl