Friday, December 13, 2002
1987 - Penn State 14, Miami 10
By Dan O'Sullivan
Imagine the pressure of playing for the national championship of college football before 73,000 spectators and a television audience in the millions.
Now imagine playing a team that had outscored its opponents, 420-136, en route to a perfect regular season. A team that had owned the No. 1 ranking since the fourth week of the season. A team starring Heisman Trophy winner Vinny Testaverde at quarterback and All-Americans Jerome Brown and Bennie Blades on defense.
Such was the challenge facing No. 2 Penn State (11-0) as it prepared to butt heads with No. 1 Miami (11-0) in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl. Nonetheless, former Penn State linebacker Pete Giftopoulos said he and his teammates liked their chances.
"We were a team that couldn't be intimidated, and that's what Miami liked to do to other players," Giftopoulos observed recently. "How are you going to intimidate a bunch of steel-town kids from Pittsburgh, Ohio, Pennsylvania? You just can't do that."
Besides self-confidence, Penn State had All-Americans at linebacker (Shane Conlan), defensive tackle (Tim Johnson), running back (D.J. Dozier) and offensive tackle (Chris Conlin). Although the Nittany Lions didn't always destroy their opposition, they always managed to win.
Neither team was able to run away with what had been dubbed the "Game of the Century." The first half ended at 7-7, and both defenses continued to dominate throughout the game. However, the opportunistic Penn State defense made more big plays, including four sacks and five interceptions. The two most-critical interceptions came late in the game.
The Hurricanes led 10-7 early in fourth quarter, when Conlan picked off a Testaverde pass and returned it 38 yards to the Miami 5. Two plays later, Dozier rumbled in for a six-yard touchdown to give Penn State a 14-10 lead.
The scored unchanged and just over three minutes left, Miami took over at its 23. Testaverde converted some key plays, including a fourth-and-six from the Hurricanes' 27 and a 31-yard strike to Brian Blades. Even with a national championship at stake, though, Giftopoulos said the Penn State defense stayed calm as Miami pushed downfield.
"We had some great leaders -- (seniors) Shane Conlan, Timmy Johnson, Bob White," he said. "They were key character people. To not see any fear in their eyes helped me as a junior and helped the other players to play the game. ... Nobody was losing it in the huddle, nobody was screaming. Everyone was like, 'Here's the play; let's do it.'"
After Testaverde completed six straight passes, the Hurricanes stood at the Penn State six-yard line. However, with 18 seconds remaining, Giftopoulos intercepted a Testaverde pass at the goal line to end the Miami threat.
"We had eight guys that dropped and rushed three. They had four receivers out, so the odds were better for us," said Giftopoulos. "If I hadn't gotten it, there were two other guys on our team that had an opportunity to get it before one of their guys got it."
The interception, Giftopoulos' second of the game, ensured Penn State's second national title in five years. Miami placed No. 2 in the final Associated Press poll.
Giftopoulos graduated in 1988, played nine years for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League, and now lives in western Pennsylvania with his wife and two children. The hero of the 1987 Fiesta Bowl remains proud of his team's accomplishments, but humble about his role in the play that derailed the Miami juggernaut.
"It wasn't a miraculous effort on my part," Giftopoulos said. "I did what I had to do, and that's what I was taught at Penn State: do what you're supposed to do as a team, and good things will come to you. That's what we did, and good things came to us."