1987 Miami Hurricanes: A Redemptive National Championship Run

The 1987 Miami Hurricanes were in need of some redemption. Each of the last two years they’d gone into the major bowls in position for a national title. Each time they lost as a favorite.

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The first one came to Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl following the 1985 season. Worse was a loss to Penn State in the previous year’s Fiesta Bowl, when a Hurricane team stocked with future NFL talent lost to a squad that was basically a nice college team.

The program might have a 1983 national title to fall back on, but current head coach Jimmy Johnson did not. Since coming to Miami in 1984 to replace Howard Schnellenberger, Johnson was 0-3 in bowl games.

Expectations were lower in 1987 and the preseason ranking was #10. Steve Walsh replaced Heisman-winning quarterback Vinny Testaverde. Walsh posted good, if unspectacular numbers in ‘87—he completed 59 percent of his passes, which was pretty good for this era. He got 7.5 yards-per-attempt and the TD/INT ratio was 19-7.

Walsh had plenty of skill position talent to get the ball to, starting with wide receiver Michael Irvin. The future Dallas Cowboy star and NFL Hall of Famer was honorable mention All-American in 1987. Irvin caught 44 balls for 715 yards. The complementary targets included Brian Blades and the top two running backs, Melvin Bratton and Warren Williams were both good out of the backfield.

The running game was well-balanced and consistent. Williams led the way with 673 yards and averaged five yards a pop. Bratton and Leonard Conley chipped in by combining for nearly 900 yards. The Hurricane offense ranked sixth in the nation in scoring.

But defense was the signature of this team. Free safety Bennie Blades was a co-winner of the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation’s best defensive back. Daniel Stubbs was an All-American defensive end. George Mira Jr. was the team leader at linebacker, a position he was joined at by Randy Shannon, a future head coach for this program. Miami’s defense finished second in the nation.

The season opened at home against 20th-ranked Florida and the Hurricane defense made a quick statement. They sacked talented Gator quarterback Kerwin Bell five times and picked him off three more times. Walsh showed he was ready to handle the duties of running the Miami offense, going 17/27 for 254 yards. All the scoring took place with the Hurricane offense on the field. They scored 31 points, but also were stopped for a couple safeties in a strange 31-4 final score.

The ‘Canes got some down time and after this September 5 win, they didn’t play again for three weeks, when they went to Arkansas. The Razorbacks were ranked #10 and there was a big storyline—Jimmy Johnson was a former Arkansas player and later a coach.

Those close to Johnson knew he was bitter at having been passed over for the Arkansas head coaching job. In front of a sellout crowd at War Memorial Stadium, he showed no mercy on his alma mater. Miami scored on eight straight possessions. By the second quarter, the score was 28-0 and the Hurricane reserves were coming into the game. It was 38-0 by the half and ended 51-7. Miami moved up to third in the national polls.

The Hurricanes had no time to celebrate. A difficult schedule got tougher when they went to Tallahassee on October 3. Florida State was ranked #4 and they came blazing out of the gates. The proud ‘Cane defense was gashed for a 67-yard touchdown run. The normally reliable special teams gave up a big punt return to Deion Sanders that set up points.

But FSU’s kicking game failures—a missed extra point and field goal, left four points on the table. Miami was in deep trouble in the third quarter, down 19-3, but it was still a two-possession game. And the Hurricanes came back.

A 49-yard touchdown pass to Bratton and two-point conversion cut the lead to 19-11 Walsh threw a 29-yard touchdown strike to Michael Irvin. The Hurricanes again converted the two-point play. Miami made another opportunistic play, recovering a fumble to snuff out a Seminole drive inside the 10-yard line in the fourth quarter. The nudged the ball out to their own 27 and faced 3rd-and-7 with 2:32 left.

The pass route called for Irvin to run and out-and-up. Walsh hit him in perfect stride. Irvin didn’t stop until he was in the end zone. 26-19 Hurricanes.

Now it was Florida State’s turn to rally. The converted a 4th-and-8, then got a 42-yard touchdown pass, both with fantastic catches by receivers. The ‘Noles had to decide whether to play for the win or tie in the pre-overtime era of college football. They opted for the win.

The pass went into the right corner of the end zone, but there was double coverage and the ball was batted down. The Hurricanes covered the onside kick with 0:42 left and ran out the clock.

Miami stayed at #3 in the polls, but they controlled their own destiny. Oklahoma and Nebraska were 1-2 and would play each other for an Orange Bowl berth in November. If the Hurricanes won out, they could get the winner in a national championship game.

The next six games were against sub-.500 teams. They ripped through Maryland, East Carolina, Cincinnati and Miami-Ohio by a combined score of 189-32. The Hurricanes were a little more pedestrian in a 27-13 win over a bad Virginia Tech team. And a 24-14 win over Toledo wasn’t inspiring. But they were still unbeaten and it was time for the final two tests.

Notre Dame came to Coral Gables ranked #10. The Hurricanes simply dominated. Tim Brown, the Irish receiver who won the Heisman in a landslide was held to three catches for 37 yards and took some ferocious hits along the way. The Hurricane defensive front got five sacks and no Irish runner went for more than 28 yards.

Some sloppiness on offense by Miami kept the game deceptively close deep into the first half. Steve Walsh threw an interception that killed one drive and Melvin Bratton fumbled on the one-yard line. But Miami eventually pulled away 24-0.

Johnson told anyone who would listen that South Carolina was better team than the Irish. The Gamecocks were 8-2 and ranked #8. They had a receiver named Sterling Sharpe that would be a five-time Pro Bowl receiver in the NFL before a neck injury cut his career short. They put together a couple nice early drives, but settled for field goals both times. Walsh threw 46 yards to Michael Irvin for a TD, then Sharpe answered with a 47-yard touchdown catch.

Trailing 13-7, Walsh again went over the top to Irving for a 42-yard gain that put Miami in field goal range. Johnson called for a fake and it paid off. The Hurricanes got the first down and kept the drive going to the end zone.

Miami’s defense forced South Carolina quarterback Todd Ellis into an erratic night, as he went 10/28 for 141 yards. Walsh threw a 56-yard touchdown pass to Brian Blades. The PAT was blocked and South Carolina stayed within a touchdown at 20-13.

The ultimate difference though, the difference was that Miami got big plays—Walsh finished 22/40 for 340 yards and finished drives with touchdowns. South Carolina drove again, but again settled for a field goal. The Hurricanes had survived 20-16. For the second straight year, Miami completed the regular season 11-0. The Orange Bowl was on deck.

Oklahoma was waiting. The Hurricanes had beaten the Sooners each of the previous two years, but they faced adversity before kickoff even arrived—George Mira Jr., the defensive captain, was suspended for failing a drug test. Bernard Clark would have to step in and step up, and that’s exactly what he did. Clark made fourteen tackles and the Hurricane defense set an early tone by forcing punts on Oklahoma’s first five possessions.

Meanwhile, it didn’t take Miami’s offense long to put the pressure on. On their first possession, they marched to the OU 30-yard line. Walsh dropped back to pass and Bratton slipped out of the backfield and up the left sideline. Walsh hit him in stride and it was 7-0. Oklahoma pulled even just before the half, but even here their offensive problems were exposed–it took them 15 plays to drive a short 45-yard field set up by a Walsh interception.

The Hurricanes came out after halftime and again struck on their first possession. They reached the 39-yard line and Johnson sent out kicker Greg Cox to try what would be a career-long 56-yard field goal attempt. Cox nailed it.

Oklahoma got a drive going and a pass to tight end Keith Jackson was about to set up the Sooners on the Miami 30-yard line. Instead, Jackson was stripped of the football by Selwyn Brown and Shannon. Miami drove right back the other way and Walsh threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to Irvin.

Walsh finished 18/30 for 209 yards and he led another drive for points. Cox, having a great night, boomed a 48-yarder. With 2:05 left, the celebration seemed to be kicking in, but Switzer had something left in his bag of tricks. Oklahoma ran the “fumble-rooskie” play. The quarterback takes the snap, sets the ball on the ground near the line of scrimmage and an offensive lineman scoops it up and goes running. It worked for a surprise touchdown.

The lead was cut to 20-14, but it just delayed the inevitable. Miami closed out the game without further incident. Clark was named the Most Outstanding Player for his defensive effort. After the frustration of 1985 and the heartbreak of 1986, Johnson was finally a champion and he jubilantly thrust his arms into the air repeatedly as he got his victory ride from the players.