College football is full of thrilling moments: thirty years ago, on November 23, 1984, the Boston College Eagles and Miami Hurricanes played one of the classic games of all time. Mark Brown takes us back.
Few days are better than Thanksgiving, except perhaps the day after. Americans partake in the usual rituals of sleeping in, enjoying the day off from work, spending time with family, stuffing their faces with leftover turkey and trimmings… and football. Whether watching on TV, playing in the back yard – or both – families are connected and memories created through the game.
Thirty years ago, those who tuned their sets to CBS at 2:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time were treated to an epic battle, one that exceeded every bit of the pregame hype. By the time it ended some 3 hours and 43 minutes later, the sport had been changed in two critical ways: First, fewer young men thereafter would hear the words, “you’re too short and small to play football.” Second, for youngsters living in the six-state New England region, which at the time had just one collegiate program at the NCAA Division 1-A level, oblong spheroids immediately became the sports toy of choice over bats, basketballs, and pucks.
It is remembered today by a two-word moniker: Hail Flutie. The protagonist would go on to play professionally for 21 years in three leagues in two countries, have a breakfast cereal named after him, and see a bronze statue erected in his honor at his alma mater.
Road to the Orange Bowl
The setting and stakes for the Miami-Boston College game may have been radically different if not for the cooperation of a third school ‒ and a substantial amount of money. Originally scheduled for September 29, 1984 at Miami’s fabled home stadium, the contest would feature two Heisman Trophy candidates in Hurricanes quarterback Bernie Kosar and diminutive Eagles signal caller Doug Flutie. Anticipating the fervor months in advance, broadcasting executives wanted a wider audience for this match-up and set their sights on the Friday after Thanksgiving. However, Miami already had a game scheduled that day. It took an $80,000 payment to persuade Rutgers, their original opponent, to cancel, opening the slot for history to be made.
The Eagles and the Hurricanes, then two of 21 major independents long before they both joined the ACC, traveled different paths leading up to their duel. Miami, the defending consensus National Champions, had a new head coach leading them in 1984, with Jimmy Johnson having taken over for Howard Schnellenberger following the latter’s departure for the upstart USFL. The Canes played a brutal early schedule, opening with a 20-18 win over top-ranked Auburn at Giants Stadium in the Kick-Off Classic. They then knocked off #17 Florida in Tampa, 32-20, and ascended to the #1 ranking themselves before losing at #14 Michigan, 22-14.
Following a win over Purdue, Miami finally played its first home game of the season, getting trounced 38-3 by #15 Florida State, then reeled off five straight wins over Rice, at #16 Notre Dame, at Cincinnati, vs. Pittsburgh and at Louisville. Two weeks prior to the BC game, the Hurricanes took a 31-0 lead at home over Maryland, only to see second-string quarterback Frank Reich lead the Terps to a stunning 42-40 comeback win (a feat Reich would later replicate in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills). The Canes fell to 8-3 on the season and dropped from #6 to #12 in the AP poll.
Under the guidance of head coach Jack Bicknell, Boston College had a far easier route to the Miami game, facing only a handful of challenges. The Eagles beat then-#9 Alabama in Tuscaloosa (38-31), dropped road games at #20 West Virginia (21-20) and Penn State (37-30), and handled Syracuse at Foxboro Stadium (24-16). Interspersed through those games were wins over Western Carolina, North Carolina, Temple, Rutgers, and Army, none by less than a dozen points. BC sat at 7-2 with a #10 AP ranking and had already accepted an invitation to the Cotton Bowl before they headed to the Sunshine State.
The two passers could scarcely be more different in playing style or stature. Kosar, a 6’5” prototypical pocket passer with a methodical approach and a cannon arm, had been a high school All-American in Youngstown, Ohio, before signing on with Schnellenberger’s high-flying pro-style Miami offense as one of the school’s few out-of-state recruits. Succeeding Jim Kelly under center, Kosar led the Canes to their 1983 national title as a first-year player. Under new coach Johnson in 1984, he continued to thrive. With tight end Willie Smith and wideout Eddie Brown among his targets (they combined for nearly 2,000 yards over Miami’s 12-game season) and running back Alonzo Highsmith keeping defenses honest, Kosar would set new school single-season records with 3,642 yards and 25 touchdown passes. Kosar also threw 16 interceptions that season ‒ six of them in the Canes’ loss at Michigan.
Flutie, standing just 5’9”, had moved with his family to the Boston suburb of Natick as a teenager. Boston College was the only Division 1-A school to recruit him, and he received Bicknell’s final scholarship as part of the Eagles’ 1981 freshman class. In a sport where being six feet tall is considered disadvantageous for quarterbacks, he faced challenges similar to what Fran Tarkenton had to deal with: gargantuan defensive linemen and omnipresent skepticism and underestimation.
Flutie developed into one of the great improvisers at his position, using his quickness and mobility to escape pressure and put himself in position to make strong throws downfield, or lofting precision tosses just out of the reach of defenders, often on the run, off-balance and/or across his body. His quick feet and well-honed instincts enabled him to scramble out of collapsing pockets, find running holes, and beat edge defenders. With reliable wide receivers Gerard Phelan (971 yards) and Kelvin Martin (10 TDs) in his sights, Flutie would throw for 3,454 yards and 27 TDs on the season with 11 INT and a QB rating of 152.9 on his way to becoming the first 10,000-yard passer in college football history.
It didn’t take a miracle finish for this contest to become an Instant Classic. Numerous incredible plays and momentum swings kept 30 million or so viewers glued to the screen from start to finish. For the most part, CBS’s broadcasting trio of Brent Musberger, Pat Haden, and Ara Parseghian provided informative commentary, with Haden breaking down the offensive maneuvers and Parseghian analyzing the defenses. However, the game largely spoke for itself, with both teams putting on superb displays of talent, athleticism, discipline, and guts.
The anniversary of this classic calls for more than merely celebrating “The Pass,” so let’s also recount some of the critical factors and standout performances leading up to that victorious moment.
The Weather Outside Was Frightful
With heavy sustained downpours pelting Miami in the days and hours leading up to the game, the natural grass field at the Orange Bowl was a disaster even before the opening kickoff with pockmarks, potholes and divots everywhere:
Rain clouds continued to swirl throughout the day under gusty winds, making footing and throwing treacherous.
Players slipped and fell when attempting to plant and pivot. Linemen lost leverage, or were unable to gain it in the first place. Yet through it all, the athletes continued to put on a remarkable show.
Flutie’s Hot Start
The BC signal caller wasted no time in living up to Musberger’s introduction of him as, “the most exciting player in the college game today.” The Eagles put 14 unanswered points on the board before Flutie failed to complete his first pass of the day, as he connected with five different receivers on his first 11 attempts for 118 yards. Their first touchdown came on a brilliant throw coupled with mostly great protection and a defensive breakdown in the Miami secondary.
Bicknell’s offense has 21 personnel on the field with Flutie under center in front of an i-formation. Phelan (#20) is to the outside left and Martin (#82) split wide right. The Hurricanes counter with a 4-3 defense and their three linebackers shifted away from the heavy right side of the BC line:
While the offensive line flawlessly executes its blocking assignments, Miami linebacker Bruce Fleming (yellow arrow) makes his way through the gap BC has created and gets past the feeble block of running back Ken Bell (#24). However, Flutie still has plenty of time to launch, hitting Martin in stride on his post route for a 33-yard scoring pass.
Seen below, freshman free safety Darrell Fullington (#19), responsible for the deep middle, initially moves to his left to assist with Martin. However, Fullington strays to his right to pick up tight end Peter Casparriello (#85). That leaves cornerback Tolbert Bain (#18) without help and outside of Martin, who beats him by a step with Flutie’s ball meeting the receiver in stride:
Flutie completed seven passes on that drive, and hit his receivers for five more on the Eagles’ next scoring possession including this throw to halfback Troy Stradford:
The play design has two double-teams forming a wall to the right, with the right tackle and right guard handling one rusher and the center and left guard obstructing another. Meanwhile left tackle Shawn Regent and fullback Steve Strachan perform single blocks to ward off defenders in the other direction.
Stradford, at the top of the i-formation pre-snap, sprints through the gaping hole and into the hook/curl zone. With pressure from the left encroaching the pocket, Flutie slings him the ball for a nice pickup.