The Road To The 1985 Orange Bowl: Washington & Oklahoma

Washington and Oklahoma each came to the 1985 Orange Bowl with hopes of getting a national championship if they won impressively and got some help. Even though that’s not how it turned out, the Huskies and Sooners gave the country a good game on New Year’s Night. Here’s a look back on the road they each traveled through the 1984 college football season.

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Don James had turned the Washington program into one of significance, earning three Rose Bowl bids (1977, 1980, 1981) in a Pac-10 long dominated by USC and UCLA. The Huskies had come up short of New Year’s Day each of the last two years, settling for Aloha Bowl trips both years. It didn’t seem like 1984 would be the year they returned to the New Year’s stage.

Hugh Millen was fairly mediocre at quarterback. The 52% completion rate and 6.1 yards-per-attempt weren’t bad by the standards of the time, but he only threw for 1,051 yards and the TD-INT ratio was 5-9. No receiver put up any notable numbers. Jacque Robinson was a good running back, and his 901 yards were fourth in the conference, but the Huskies weren’t going to win a scoring race with anybody.

Nor were they bursting at the seams with defensive talent. Vestee Jackson, who would eventually have an eight-year run with the Chicago Bears, was a talented cornerback, but other than that, Washington had to win with coaching, discipline and execution.

They opened the season ranked #18 and shutout Northwestern 26-0 to get the year started. The Huskies then paid a visit to Ann Arbor, where Michigan was ranked #3. Washington’s opportunistic style made the difference. They intercepted Wolverine quarterback Jim Harbaugh three times and got five turnovers in all. Leading 10-3 in the third quarter, Millen hit Mark Pattison on a 73-yard touchdown pass to break the game open.

Washington won 20-11 and even though this would prove to be a disappointing Michigan team, one that would go 6-5, the glow of this win had the Huskies zooming up to #9 in the polls.

A 35-7 victory over soon-to-be SWC co-champ Houston followed and Washington then beat Miami-Ohio 53-7 and got by lowly Oregon State 19-7. Washington’s perfect record, combined with chaos at the top of the polls had them suddenly sitting at #2 in the country. On October 13, the Huskies blew out mediocre Stanford 37-15 while Texas and Oklahoma—the teams directly ahead and behind them in the rankings—played to a tie. Washington was now ranked #1.

James’ team won a pedestrian 17-10 decision over an average Oregon team and they beat a pretty good Arizona club 28-12. The Huskies concluded their three-game homestand by beating up two-win Cal 44-14. The stage was set for November 10 at Southern Cal.

USC was ranked #14, thanks to an early loss to LSU, but the Trojans were undefeated in league play. No one else was close enough to catch either Washington or USC, so the winner of this game would clinch the Rose Bowl spot. Washington couldn’t get anything going offensively the entire day, fell behind and their passing game problems were exposed in a 16-7 loss. They slipped to #8.

The Huskies were still in the mix for a major bowl bid even if it wouldn’t be Pasadena. The traditional season finale with Washington State wouldn’t be easy. The Cougars had six wins, they had the Pac-10 MVP in running back Reuben Mayes and quarterback Mark Rypien would one day star at the Washington on the other side of the country—with the Redskins, where he was a Super Bowl MVP.

James had his team ready to go though and they played a good offensive game, winning 38-29 and nudging their way back to #4 for the Orange Bowl.

Oklahoma, after being one of the nation’s top three programs in the 1970s (along with USC and Alabama), had slid backward the past three years. The Sooners lost four games each year from 1981-93 and were only ranked #16 to begin 1984.

The talent base wasn’t as dazzling as previous OU editions had been. The only All-American was defensive tackle Tony Casillas. Lydell Carr’s 694 yards led the team and the passing game was as inept as one would expect from a traditional option-first offense.

Danny Bradley only completed 48 percent of his passes, though he did get a decent 7.3 yards-per-pass, thanks to a big-play threat in future NFL tight end Keith Jackson.

Oklahoma beat Stanford 19-7 to start the year and then trounced Pitt 42-10. The Panthers had been ranked #3 in the preseason polls, but an opening home loss to BYU had Pitt down to #17 by the time they hosted OU, and the Panthers would end up a 3-7-1 train wreck. For now, the OU win was seen as impressive enough to boost them to #11.

A 24-6 win over Kansas State came as top teams were starting to fall left and right, and the Sooners rose to #3. It was then the aforementioned 15-15 tie with top-ranked Texas came, but the tie worked in Oklahoma’s favor—they moved to #2.

OU played poorly in a 12-10 win over a bad Iowa State team and that presaged a 28-11 loss at Kansas, who finished the year 5-6. Oklahoma was now down to 10th in the polls and a national title seemed a longshot. But they picked themselves up, rolled over two lousy teams in Missouri and Colorado by a combined 91-24 and were ranked sixth in the nation as they headed to Nebraska.

The Cornhuskers were atop both the Big Eight and the national polls, and had a 27-game conference winning streak. Nebraska and Oklahoma traded touchdowns in the first half, with the Sooners getting an easy score off a turnover. A field goal early in the fourth quarter helped OU nudge ahead 10-7.

Oklahoma was being outplayed in the general flow of the game. The running game for both teams was basically a wash, neither good nor bad. Bradley was no passing threat at all, throwing for just 58 yards, while the Cornhuskers at least got some movement through the air.

But OU would win the turnover battle 4-3 and they made big defensive stops. Nebraska drove inside the 10-yard line, but forced to settle for a field goal, they missed. And when the Cornhuskers had 4th-and-goal on the 1-yard line with 5:32 left, Oklahoma made one more stop. They tacked on a clinching touchdown and had a 17-7 win.

There was still the matter of playing a home game with Oklahoma State and this one wasn’t exactly a game to overlook. The Cowboys had one of their best teams and they were ranked #3 in the country, while Oklahoma was now #2. The winner would have a chance at the national championship.

The rivalry game called Bedlam was tied 14-14 in the third quarter, when two big turnovers made the difference. One set up a Sooner field goal and the other, a muffed punt, produced a clinching touchdown. Oklahoma had a 24-14 win and after a three-year hiatus were back on top of the Big Eight and had its bowl tie-in reward with the trip to Miami.

Washington and Oklahoma arrived at the Orange Bowl at the center of a raging national debate. BYU was ranked #1, but played a weak schedule and then played in the Holiday Bowl (as they were contractually obligated to do) on December 21, barely escaping Michigan 24-17.  Third-ranked Florida had a loss and a tie and was on probation. While BYU was expected to win the final vote, their critics were pointing to the Orange Bowl as the place where the national title should be settled.

Most of the debate centered on Oklahoma, as the second-ranked team and Switzer openly campaigned for his team as #1. Perhaps that resulted in his team not being ready at the kickoff.

The Huskies jumped down the throats of the Sooners with two first-quarter touchdowns. The Sooners answered with a pair of TDs of their own and kicked a field goal for a 17-14 lead. But Millen found Pattison on a 29-yard touchdown pass with a little less than nine minutes to play, putting Washington back on top and they tacked on one more touchdown to seal the 28-17 win.

BYU would win the vote, while some of us believe that Washington, with a tougher schedule and more impressive win over the common foe of Michigan, would have been a better choice. In any case, the debate surrounding the 1985 Orange Bowl kept things interesting in a year when the national championship debate was otherwise quiet for New Year’s.