Stony-Faced and sullen, Auburn coach Pat Dye tried to defend his nonsporting decision to play for a tie against undefeated Syracuse in the Sugar Bowl: "My decision was not to get beat."
Not to get beat? No coach worth his whistle ought to think like this. Dye, in a moment of stress, with his Tigers in possession of the ball on the Syracuse 13 with four seconds left in the game and trailing 16-13, forgot the basic premise of sport: Win the game. Instead of letting his sterling quarterback, Jeff Burger, attempt a final do-or-die pass into the end zone. Dye sent in kicker Win Lyle for a successful 30-yard field goal that resulted in the first tie in the Sugar Bowl's 54-year history. "Our guys were not real happy," said Lyle. "They really didn't like it when I went out there. They were screaming that they wanted to go for the touchdown."
Dye was of no mind to explain further. "I'm going hunting," he said. "If they [the Orangemen] wanted to win, they should have blocked the field goal."
Going into the game, Syracuse had a remote shot at a national championship—if Oklahoma and Miami tied in the Orange Bowl. That didn't happen, of course, but at the time Dye elected to go for three, the kickoff in Miami was still two hours away.
January 11, 1988
Afterward, the more Syracuse coach Dick MacPherson thought about what had happened, the madder he got. "Why didn't Dye ask his players what they wanted to do?" he said, fuming. Obviously, coaches don't ask their players to make such decisions, but MacPherson was angry beyond logic. "Did his school president tell him he was fired if he lost? I definitely would have gone for the win."
Orange quarterback Don McPherson, the game's MVP in spite of ordinary rushing and passing numbers, was a bit calmer when he said, "We didn't tie them. They tied us." Perhaps it's time for the bowls to adopt sudden-death overtime.
Events in Tempe, Ariz., meanwhile yielded a much clearer result. There, Florida State—which lost this season only to Miami, 26-25, when Seminole coach Bobby Bowden passed up a one-point conversion attempt for what turned out to be an unsuccessful two-point try—made a case for itself as the nation's best college football team by defeating Nebraska 31-28. The Huskers' loss, coupled with Oklahoma's, was a stunning blow to the Big Eight and devotees of option offense.
The Seminoles had to overcome a 14-0 Husker lead then, trailing 28-24 with 6:58 left, stop Nebraska on its two when Eric Hayes recovered Tyreese Knox's fumble and, finally, drive 97 yards against a superb opponent for the game-winning score. It was a glorious display of guts ball. Fittingly, the clincher in the 31-28 Florida State win came on fourth-and-goal on the Nebraska 15 when quarterback Danny McManus, son of an Atlantic City blackjack dealer, dealt a 15-yard completion to Ronald Lewis in the end zone.
In other bowls:
•The battered Southwest Conference surprisingly distinguished itself. In the Cotton, Texas A & M mauled Notre Dame 35-10. The low point of the proceedings: The Irish's thin-skinned Heisman winner, Tim Brown, charged across the field and jumped Aggie special-team member Warren Barhorst. Seems Barhorst had swiped a towel Brown had had fastened to his belt. Brown got his towel back but lost a lot of public esteem. The surprise at the Bluebonnet was that Pitt's storied defense—fourth in the nation against scoring, giving up only 10.4 points per game—got wiped out by a Texas passing attack. The Longhorns won 32-27 as quarterback Bret Stafford completed 20 of 34 for three TDs and a Bluebonnet record 368 yards. Pretty fancy numbers for the Longhorns, who usually pass infrequently and inaccurately. The good news for Pittsburgh was that tailback Craig Heyward gained 136 yards on 30 carries—completing a season in which he passed the century mark in rushing yards in every game. A third Southwest Conference team, Arkansas, acquitted itself well in the Liberty, losing 20-17 to Georgia on a last-second field goal by freshman Dawg John Kasay.
•The Big Ten, another conference with a tarnished rep, also found redemption in the bowls. Its teams went 3-1. Michigan State, behind strong safety John Miller's two interceptions, hung on to whip greatly improved USC 20-17 in the Rose. It was only the third time in 19 years that the Big Ten has triumphed in Pasadena. Lorenzo White, the Spartans' alltime leading rusher, ran for 113 yards and scored both of his team's touchdowns. Iowa rallied from a fourth-quarter, two-touchdown deficit to beat a good Wyoming team 20-19 in the Holiday, and Michigan played more like the Michigan of yore in defeating Alabama 28-24 in the Hall of Fame. The Wolverines' Jamie Morris rushed for 234 yards and three TDs. Among Big Ten teams only Indiana fell; the Hoosiers were 27-22 losers to Tennessee in the Peach.
•Arizona State buffed up an otherwise lackluster season by holding off overachieving Air Force 33-28 in the Freedom, LSU showed it was as good as many observers suspected by hammering South Carolina 30-13 in the Gator, and Penn State showed it was worse than many thought when it was thrashed 35-10 in the Citrus by Clemson. That was the worst bowl loss ever for the Nittany Lions.