Miami dominated college football in the 1980s and early 1990s, winning four national titles between 1983 and 1992, while finishing second or third four other times.
The Hurricanes succeeded with ultra-fast, hard-hitting defenses and wide-open, single-back offenses run by cerebral and efficient pro-style quarterbacks.
Jim Kelly was the first of the great Miami quarterbacks, and he helped set the table for the amazing run that was to come. Bernie Kosar came next and put the program in the spotlight when he led the ‘Canes to the national title as a redshirt freshman in 1983.
Kosar left early for the NFL, but his replacement was arguably the best Miami quarterback of all time: Vinny Testaverde.
As a first-year starter in 1985, Testaverde threw for 3,238 yards and 21 touchdowns and nearly led Miami to another championship. A Sugar Bowl loss to Tennessee left the Hurricanes with a 10-2 record. But Miami entered 1986 as one of the favorites for the national title with Testaverde as the overwhelming front runner for the Heisman Trophy.
At the time, it appeared only one team stood in the way of both goals: Oklahoma.
The Sooners were the AP preseason No. 1 team, while Miami was tabbed at third withMichigan in between. But the Wolverines struggled in their opening 24-23 win over an unranked Notre Dame team (the Irish would become the first team ever to enter the rankings despite losing). Miami took over the No. 2 spot, setting up a home showdown with No. 1 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl on Sept. 27, 1986.
The hype and storylines surrounding the matchup were intense. The two teams epitomized the changing structure of college football in the 1980s, with Miami cast as the “new money” insurgent program and Oklahoma as the fading but still venerable “old money” traditional power. The Hurricanes’ outlaw reputation was countered by the arrogance of the Sooners and their outspoken linebacker, Brian Bosworth.
In other words, this game was a media dream.
It soon turned into an Oklahoma nightmare.
Oklahoma and Bosworth (who finished with 14 tackles) played inspired on defense from the start, and Miami led just 7-3 at the break. But the second half was a different story as Testaverde turned in a virtuoso performance. He went 9-for-9 in the third quarter and threw three touchdowns to break the game open. He ended up 21-of-28 for 261 yards and four touchdowns on the day. He also tortured the Sooner defense with several Tarkentonesque scrambles, showing tremendous nimbleness and athleticism for a 6-foot-5, 230-pound quarterback.
The final result: No. 2 Miami completely outclassed No. 1 Oklahoma, 28-16.
“In 21 years, I have never seen a better quarterback,” OU coach Barry Switzer said afterward (while also adding that he didn’t want to play Miami again).
Here’s a clip from the third quarter of the game:
The Hurricanes came out of the win No. 1 and in the driver’s seat for the national title, while Testaverde all but locked up the Heisman with his performance.
An undefeated regular season followed in due course for Miami. Testaverde threw for 2,557 yards and 26 touchdowns with a record 165 pass efficiency rating, which was more than enough to claim Miami’s first Heisman.
It wasn’t a particularly strong Heisman field that year. Temple running back Paul Palmer ran for 1,866 yards for a 6-5 team, while Jim Harbaugh was the star quarterback for a top-10 Michigan squad. Neither had the resume that Testaverde offered to Heisman voters, and his performance against Oklahoma stuck in their minds all season.
Testaverde won the Heisman going away, sweeping the regions while totaling 2,213 points to Palmer’s 672 and Harbaugh’s 458.
While he couldn’t lead his team over Penn State in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, he was drafted first overall that year by Tampa Bay and went on to a 21-year NFL career.
Testaverde’s greatness at Miami helped establish that program as a Heisman power. And it all began with that win over Oklahoma, 28 years ago this week.