The 1985 Oklahoma Sooners Turn An Injury Into A National Championship

The 1985 Oklahoma Sooners were then, as they are today, were one of college football’s winningest programs. Under the leadership of head coach Barry Switzer, OU won national titles in 1974-75 and won three straight Orange Bowls from 1978-80 (the Orange being the home bowl of the old Big Eight, and dominated by OU and Nebraska). 

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A year ago they’d come to another Orange Bowl and were hoping a win over Washington would give them a shot at another national championship. A 28-17 upset loss to the Huskies rankled and the Sooners were hungry to go all the way in 1985. A preseason #1 ranking only fed the flames in Sooner Nation, with top defensive players like defensive end Kevin Murphy, linebacker Brian Bosworth and defensive tackle Tony Casillas.

All of the above would make All-American, while Bosworth won the Butkus Award and Casillas was named Lombardi Trophy winner. At quarterback was a highly touted dropback passer—a rarity for the option-oriented Sooners—named Troy Aikman.

Oklahoma didn’t play their first game until September 28 and they opened with a pair of decisive wins over Minnesota and Kansas State. The meat of their regular season schedule would be back-to-back October games against Texas and Miami, along with a traditional November battle with Nebraska.

The Red River Rivalry against Texas, held at its traditional place in Dallas’ Cotton Bowl was a battle from start to finish. The Longhorns got a defensive score early, returning a fumble on the OU 7-yard line for a touchdown to make it 7-0.

Oklahoma tied it with a TD of their own and after that it looked like the game might end 7-7 the way the defenses were playing. Texas got only 17 rush yards on the day, with 70 total yards. The Sooners finally broke through early in the fourth quarter, as Patrick Collins scampered in from 45 for a 14-7 lead that might has well have been three touchdowns.

Miami was up next. The Hurricanes had a roster dotted with future NFL players, from quarterback Vinny Testaverde to receiver Michael Irvin to defensive back Bennie Blades to defensive tackle to Jerome Brown to running back Alonzo Highsmith. You name it, the ‘Canes had it—even on the coaching staff, where future Super Bowl-winning coach Jimmy Johnson was on the sidelines with a staff that included Dave Wannstedt and Butch Davis, both who would be head coaches at the college and NFL levels.

About midway through the first quarter, facing a third down, Testaverde rifled a perfect strike to Irvin for a touchdown pass. Aikman came back with an 89-yard drive of his own that included a 50-yard pass play to OU’s great tight end, Keith Jackson, who would one day be a target for Green Bay Packer quarterback Brett Favre at the prime of his career.

Aikman was having a good day in his sophomore season and the game was looking like a good one, when Brown broke through, sacked the quarterback and broke his ankle. In the short run, it forced Switzer to turn to freshman Jamelle Holieway who was a traditional OU option quarterback. It meant the Sooners couldn’t play catchup as Miami widened the lead, rushed for over 100 yards and a got a solid 270-yard day from Testaverde. It meant Oklahoma lost at home, 27-14.

In the long run the injury meant Oklahoma returned to the wishbone with Holieway for the rest of the season and that Aikman would transfer to UCLA, where he’d learn the pro-style offense in more detail and go on to quarterback the Cowboys of both Johnson (1989-93) and Switzer (1994-97) to three Super Bowl wins. If there’s been a more consequential injury in college football it’s hard to think of what it might be.

Oklahoma then hit a soft spot on its schedule and was barreling through overmatched teams in Iowa State, Kansas, Missouri and Colorado, while trying to recover in the polls. The loss to Miami dropped them to 10th and these four games had to be used to reinstall the wishbone offense with the freshman Holieway at the controls. The offense started to click again, the familiar triple option returned to Norman and the Sooners would quietly rise to #5 in the rankings by the time they faced archrival and #2 Nebraska on November 23.

The Sooners still needed help, but they could at least beat the top two teams in the polls—a win over Nebraska would get them an Orange Bowl crack at #1 Penn State. Also in the mix were Iowa and old foe Miami, both with a loss apiece.

Nebraska brought the top offense in college football to Norman, at least based on statistical measurements. On the ground alone they were averaging almost 400 yards a game and future San Francisco 49er fullback Tom Rathman, a key part of Super Bowl-winning teams, anchored the backfield.

But Switzer and offensive coordinator Jim Donnan (later a successful head coach at Georgia), went into their back of tricks. On their own 12-yard line, they called for a tight end reverse and Jackson rumbled 88 yards for the score. Nebraska drove back, but missed a short field goal. From this point forward, the OU defense completely won its battle with the high-powered Cornhusker attack.

The Sooner offense made big plays—Jackson took off on two more reverses that added up to 48 more yards and caught a 30-yard pass play. Holieway rushed for 110 yards. It was 27-0 late in the game when Nebraska returned a fumble for a touchdown that avoided a shutout. After taking care of two more games, against 17th-ranked Oklahoma State and SMU, the Sooners were Orange Bowl bound.

Penn State was still undefeated and at the top of the polls. Miami was playing Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl. Iowa had fumbled away the Rose Bowl against UCLA earlier on New Year’s Day and had been highly unlikely to end up atop the polls in any case. 

It was well possible that Oklahoma controlled its destiny regardless of what happened in the Sugar Bowl.  It was illogical, based on the head-to-head result against Miami–in Norman no less– but the political impact of beating #1 can’t be underestimated, even if the Lions lacked national respect. Oklahoma was a solid touchdown favorite.

OU was caught off guard early when Penn State drove the field immediately for a touchdown that made it 7-0. One thing was apparent early on and throughout this game was that the Lion defense was nationally elite, even if their offense was not. The Sooners had a tough road ahead, but a big play made all the difference.

After a field goal made it 7-3, Holieway found Jackson streaking to the post and hit him on a 71-yard scoring strike. With a 10-7 lead, the Sooner defense found the ball back in its court and this time they didn’t let go. A couple more field goals from Tim Lasher stretched the lead to nine points, but right before the half an inexplicable fumble by Holieway when he should have been killing the clock gave PSU a gift field goal. At 16-10 it was still a game.

Another Lasher field goal made it a two-score game and when Penn State drove down the field in the third quarter, that insurance loomed large. Oklahoma intercepted PSU quarterback John Shaffer to kill the threat and the game seemed all but over.

Penn State kept fighting defensively, but Oklahoma’s own D was too good. In the meantime, word was coming that Tennessee was pasting Miami in the Sugar Bowl, in what would be a 35-7 rout. By the third quarter it was apparent that events the Orange Bowl would indisputedly settle a national championship. OU fullback Lydell Carr took off on a 61-yard touchdown jaunt with 1:42 left that sealed the 25-10 win. It was Switzer’s third national title.

The 1985 Oklahoma Sooners had an unorthodox path to a national championship—it isn’t often a team loses its starting quarterback and the injury turns out best for all parties, but this was a unique case, as a great defense carried the way.