The Road To The 1981 Orange Bowl: Oklahoma & Florida State

The 1981 Orange Bowl offered a rematch, as Oklahoma met Florida State in Miami for the second straight season. And this time the sequel was much better than the original—after OU won decisively the prior year, this time the Sooners had to go down to the bitter end to win a classic game. Let’s look back on how OU and FSU came to arrive in South Beach on New Year’s Day of 1981.

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Oklahoma was ranked #5 to open the 1980 college football season and had won or shared the Big Eight title each of the last four years, with the only serious competition coming from Nebraska. The Sooners weren’t quite as good defensively this year though. They normally produced dominating Ds, but this season slipped to 45th in the country and lacked All-American talent.

Nor did the Sooners throw the ball effectively, or barely at all. J.C. Watts threw ten interceptions in spite of attempting only 78 passes all season. What Oklahoma could do was run the wishbone option attack like nobody’s business.

The three-back set was balanced, and Stanley Wilson, David Overstreet and Buster Rhymes all finished with over 600 yards, as did Watts. The four players were in the top ten of the Big Eight in rushing and they ran behind an offensive line anchored by a pair of All-American guards, Louise Oubre and Terry Crouch.

After a season-opening win over lowly Kentucky, OU’s defensive problems were exposed. They hosted Stanford who had this talented sophomore quarterback named John Elway. The Cards were unranked and surprised everyone with a decisive 31-14 win. Oklahoma dropped to #12. The defense looked even worse the following week at awful Colorado, but the offense absolutely exploded in an 82-42 win.

The annual rivalry battle with Texas was up next—in the college football world prior to 1996, this was a non-conference game, with the Longhorns in the old Southwest Conference. Texas was ranked third in the country and while they would eventually fade, it didn’t happen in this game. Oklahoma lost 20-13 and slid to #17. The national title hopes were gone.

Barry Switzer’s team got back on track with wins over Kansas State and Iowa State, and then welcomed sixth-ranked North Carolina to Norman. For the second time in 1980, the Sooners would face a future NFL great. This time it was outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor. But this time, the result was much different.

The Oklahoma running game got cranking, and blasted out 495 yards. Watts ran for 139. The game was close at the half, with the Sooners up 14-7, but a trio of third-quarter touchdowns blew it open. Watts didn’t complete a pass, going 0-for-2, but he didn’t need to in a 41-7 romp.

The Sooners struggled at mediocre Kansas, winning 21-19, though the victory moved them back into the Top 10. They again survived against a pretty good Missouri team, winning 17-7. In spite of the losses, Oklahoma hadn’t lost within the Big Eight and that meant their November 22 trip to #4 Nebraska was for an outright conference championship and the Orange Bowl bid that came with it.

OU surrendered a long touchdown run to Nebraska’s Jarvis Redwine early and fell behind 10-0. The Sooners rallied with two second quarter touchdowns to lead 14-10 at half, but their running game bogged down badly. The defense hung in, but the Cornhuskers scored a touchdown with 3:16 left and with a 17-14 lead, the Nebraska fans littered the field with oranges in anticipation of their prize. It proved to be premature.

Rhymes tore off the biggest play of the season, a 43-yard run that got Oklahoma to the 16-yard line. A field goal was still essentially useless—because of the non-conference losses and Nebraska’s higher ranking, the Cornhuskers would surely get chosen for the Orange Bowl if the teams played to a tie in this era prior to overtime. Rhymes made sure that wasn’t necessary, diving over the top for the winning points with less than a minute left.

After the struggles of the early season, Oklahoma was again the Big Eight champs and they were all the way to #4 in the polls by the time the Orange Bowl arrived.

Florida State’s Orange Bowl run of a year earlier had put Bobby Bowden’s up-and-coming program on the map and they were ready to demonstrate it was no fluke in the 1980 regular season. They had All-American nose tackle Ron Simmons back to anchor the defense, along with fellow All-American Bobby Butler in the secondary.

The offense didn’t have national honorees, but they could move the ball in an offense that was very wide-open for the times. Rick Stockstill threw 201 passes and completed 60 percent. Bowden made use of the running backs in the passing game, with Michael Whiting’s 25 catches being the most on the team.

Whiting also ran for 500 yards, while Sam Platt led the team in rushing with nearly 1,000 yards. Hardis Johnson was the top wideout, with 24 catches for 419 yards.

But it was special teams that Florida State excelled at, with All-American choices at kicker and punter. Bill Capece was the placekicker, while Rohn Stark, a future Pro Bowler in the NFL, was the nation’s best punter. Florida State was still searching for respect though, and was ranked #13 to start the season.

The Seminoles went to a pretty good LSU team and won 16-0 to open the campaign, moving to #10. They followed it up by crushing shaky competition in Louisville in South Carolina by a combined 115-7. But a road trip to Miami—a team on its way to nine wins—would prove to be a problem, as it would so often in Bowden’s later career. The ‘Noles lost 10-9 and slipped to #16.

Florida State’s season was now in trouble. They had a road trip to Nebraska and a home game with Pitt next, both teams ranked in the top five. The Seminoles could be out of the major bowl picture before October was halfway through.

They were beaten in the trenches in Nebraska, losing the rushing battle 201-12 and falling behind 14-3 at the half. But Florida State was opportunistic. They capitalized on three second-half turnovers and nudged their way to an 18-14 lead when the Cornhuskers launched one final drive.

The ball was on the 3-yard line with twelve seconds left. Linebacker Paul Piurowski stepped up and forced the fourth turnover of the half, with a sack and fumble. Florida State survived.

Pitt was one of the most talented teams in the country. Hugh Green was the best defensive lineman in the country. Mark May was the best offensive lineman in the country. The roster had 23 future NFL starters on it. And they had a sophomore at quarterback in Dan Marino who didn’t turn out half bad either. The Panthers were unbeaten and smelling their second national championship in four years.

The special teams heroes of Florida State came through. Capece nailed five field goals, including a 50-yarder at the end of the first half that gave the Seminoles a 20-7 lead. Stark crushed punts of 60, 67 and 53 yards, and controlled field position. In the meantime, Platt ran for 123 yards and the opportunistic defense continued—they picked off Marino three times, recovered four fumbles and won under the lights in Tallahassee 36-22.

It was to be Pitt’s only loss. Florida State was back on the national scene, ranked #7 and a player for a New Year’s Day bid.

The Seminoles rolled through the next four games without incident, beating Boston College, Memphis, Tulsa and Virginia Tech, with the former and latter teams being competitive and the middle two not so much. FSU got a tougher battle from rival Florida, an eight-win team, but the ‘Noles survived 17-13. They went to the Orange Bowl ranked third in the country.

On January 1, top-ranked Georgia won the Sugar Bowl early in the day, so by the time Florida State and Oklahoma took the field, the national championship was settled. They still made sure to give college football fans one final thrill before the season ended.

Florida State wasn’t overmatched at the point of attack, as they had been in the previous year’s 24-7 loss to Oklahoma. The Sooners ran the ball 55 times and only got 156 yards. The Seminole defense continued to get turnovers, six in in all. One of them was a botched punt that was recovered in the end zone. FSU led 17-10 late in the game.

But earlier, the Seminoles had missed a key opportunity when Capece uncharacteristically missed a short field goal. The Sooners were still in the game when they got the ball on their own 22-yard line with 2:37 left. Watt led the drive of his life, leading OU 78 yards for the touchdown and then converting the two-point play for an 18-17 lead.

Florida State made one last gasp, reached the Oklahoma 40-yard line and sent Capece out to try a desperation 57-yarder. He got good leg into it, but not quite enough. Oklahoma had another Orange Bowl victory.

Both teams would disappear from the New Year’s stage for a few years. Oklahoma would lose ground to Nebraska in the Big Eight for each of the next three seasons, before getting back to this game in 1984. Florida State’s next major bowl game would be 1987.