' ' Cinema Romantico: My Favorite College Football Games: Game 13

Saturday, November 23, 2019

My Favorite College Football Games: Game 13

January 1, 1988 (Sugar Bowl): Syracuse - 16 Auburn - 16

Syracuse quarterback Don McPherson should have won the 1987 Heisman Trophy. You can make this argument through the numbers, and some have, but he also had plenty of Heisman Moments™, which matter more (and should because pointless awards based on stats are boring and pointless awards based on the ineffable are fun), like unfurling an 80-yard TD bomb on the first play of his team’s signature win over Penn State and, especially, converting a 2-point conversion to beat West Virginia in the literal last minute with an undefeated regular season on the line by making an ultra-cool, at-the-last-moment option pitch to running back Michael Owens. But because of McPherson’s middling professional career, mostly spent in Canada, future Pro Football Hall of Famer Tim Brown of Notre Dame winning the 1987 award for college football’s best player saved us from a lifetime of McPherson getting dragged on those inane Who Should Have Won the Heisman lists, based entirely and contrarily off NFL success of which these list writers generally say something like “it’s not fair but perception is reality” before proceeding to further inflate that vacuous perception. That McPherson didn’t pan out in the NFL stemmed from his perceived flaws, like a lack of size, though such flaws are why I prefer the college game, where Aaron Rodgers, while at Cal, still held the ball way up high, near his helmet, akin to a baseball bat, a blemish inevitably ironed out at the next level. And, fair enough. Ironing out all the eccentricities is good for the bottom line. But who the hell ever said the bottom line made good poetry?


If the ’87 Orangemen were undefeated at season’s end, they were stuck in the rankings at #3 behind also-undefeated Miami and Oklahoma, colliding in the Orange Bowl for the Mythical National Championship. Even so, as New Year’s Day 1988 dawned, Syracuse had a strange yet no less true chance at the title so long as they beat Auburn in the Sugar Bowl while Miami and Oklahoma tied. (Miami, alas, would win anyway.) As such, their Sugar Bowl showdown, one gloriously epitomizing the spirit of bowl season, where a provincial game suddenly turns national, a private research university in upstate New York squaring off against a public research land grant university in the Deep South, was lent palpable urgency even if it was raggedly played, not a defensive struggle exactly but never a jubilee of offense either, each team moving the ball but frequently failing to cash in, leading to lots of field goals and that strange-looking score.

That strange-looking score, though, is what made the game lasting, a tie born not accidentally, with the clock running out, or because there was no other choice, like Harvard “beating” Yale 29-29. No, Auburn, trailing 16-13, pulled off a last-ditch drive to Syracuse’s 14-yard line with one precious second left where Tiger Coach Pat Dye eschewed a do-or-die pass to the end zone and sent on, in a twist that will make you believe in college football providence, a kicker named Win Lyle whose 30-yard field goal ensured the 54th Sugar Bowl would have no resolution.

Everyone was mad. Not just Syracuse, whose Coach Dick MacPherson was not exactly gracious in his post-game commentary toward his counterpart’s unsporting choice, but the Auburn players too, most of whom wanted to go for the win, never mind the Orangemen fans who, in a peerless example of ex post facto trash talk, mailed Dye 2,000 ties. And yet, if I understand the frustrations of all those involved, the juxtaposition between Syracuse’s regular season-ending go-for-the-win 2-point conversion and Auburn’s actively choosing a stalemate only put an indelible cosmic point on the Orangemen’s grand achievement in the first place, the gridiron courage it took to go for immortality. And that’s what 1987 Syracuse, long removed from the program’s mid-century heyday, improbably coming off a 5-6 season, achieved – immortality, the school’s last great football team. They would have achieved immortality had they finished 12-0, assuredly, even if they finished 2nd in the polls behind Miami, but it would have been sans the strange clarity and revealing complexity of that poetically imprecise 11-0-1 record, an exemplar of college football’s true ideal. Just as the flaws destined to deny Don McPherson NFL stardom hardly mattered, neither did that lone blot at the end of 1987 Syracuse’s record line.

In college football, you don’t have to go 12-0 to be perfect.

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