football

1 of a kind: Unbeaten Syracuse team remains standard 25 years later

Daily Orange File Photo

Ben Schwartzwalder was carried off the field by SU players following the team’s 48-21 thrashing of Penn State in the Carrier Dome on Oct. 17, 1987. Schwartzwalder was the last SU coach to beat the Nittany Lions before the undefeated 1987 Orangemen pulled off the feat.

Daryl Johnston recalls sitting with punter Cooper Gardiner and a few other teammates at Maggie’s Tavern one night a few weeks before the 1987 season.

When it was time to pay the tab, Gardiner took out a $1 bill and a pen.

Though Syracuse wasn’t ranked in the preseason poll, Gardiner scribed “Syracuse football: 11-0 1987, one to go” on the bill and tacked it up on the wall of the tavern.

“It was a one-week-at-a-time mantra,” said Johnston, the fullback on the 1987 team. “It all kind of started before the season even began.”

Gardiner’s ambitious prediction proved to be prophetic, as the Dick MacPherson-coached 1987 team went 11-0 during the regular season. The Orangemen came back against Virginia Tech, obliterated favored Penn State and fended off West Virginia en route to an unblemished regular season 25 years ago. Despite a 16-16 tie in the Sugar Bowl against Southeastern Conference powerhouse Auburn, Johnston looks back on the season as the most incredible run of his college or professional career.

Johnston said the 1987 season trumps winning three Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys because of the way the team rose up, accepted the challenge and went undefeated.

“That’s my most special season,” Johnston said. “That 1987 group was just something unique. We weren’t supposed to do that. We were nobody, and we pushed it all the way to No. 4.”

That one-game-at-a-time mentality permeated throughout the entire team. MacPherson often addressed his players with the mindset that an undefeated season wasn’t out of reach, but they had to take it one game at a time to get to that point.

“I think that in 1987 we thought we had a chance to win the national championship,” MacPherson said. “That’s how close we were.”

After decisive wins over Maryland, Rutgers and Miami (Ohio) to start the season, the players realized they had a shot at running the table.

Down by double-digits against Virginia Tech in the fourth game of the season, the Orangemen went into the locker room crushed and out of whack. Offensive coordinator George DeLeone walked to the chalkboard and wrote one word.

Character.

“We’re going to see if this team has any,” DeLeone said dramatically, walking away immediately after his pithy proposition.

That message was understood and embraced by the Orangemen, as the game took a complete 180 in the second half. Syracuse scored 28 unanswered points and came away with a 35-21 victory in front of a stunned Hokie crowd.

“It was a tough game,” Johnston said. “They had a couple of pro prospects and it was a few weeks before the Penn State game. There was the fear that we would look ahead.”

After knocking off Missouri, the game that Syracuse had been trying not to look ahead to for months was finally its only focus.

That “one to go” mentality was more pertinent than ever, as the No. 13 Orangemen had to knock off No. 10 Penn State to keep its undefeated season alive.

SU did just that, throttling favored Penn State 48-21 at the Carrier Dome. MacPherson even took out some starters in the fourth, after his team built a 41-0 cushion heading into the final quarter.

Penn State surged back to make the score 41-21, but the starters came back in to seal the deal. Johnston said the starters went right down the field to go up 48-21, leaving no doubt about who was the sharper team on that particular day.

“Everything we did we did right that day,” Johnston said. “It was amazing. I just remember how much it meant to everybody. I think it had been 17 years since we had beaten Penn State.”

Following the decisive win, Penn State head coach Joe Paterno walked into the Syracuse locker room and congratulated the Orangemen on a job well done.

“He said we were the best team he’d seen all season,” Johnston said. “That to me was our statement game. That was huge for us.”

Gardiner remembers his team fumbling the ball and coming up short in the final minutes against PSU in 1985. The win two years later stands out as one of the highlights for the former strong safety and punter Gardiner.

“Emotionally, I think guys really wanted to beat Penn State,” Gardiner said. “It was a team that we hadn’t beaten. We played them and we beat them pretty good on national television.”

After wins against Colgate, Pittsburgh, Navy and Boston College, SU was one game away from a perfect regular season, the Orangemen’s first since the 1959 national championship team.

Down 31-24 to West Virginia with 1:30 remaining, it was go-time for SU.

Johnston said he’s watched the game on tape several times over the years. He gets excited every time he sees the shot of the Syracuse offensive players right after West Virginia claimed the lead with less than two minutes to go.

They were ready to finish what they had started.

Quarterback Don McPherson ignited a drive downfield, capped by a touchdown pass to tight end Pat Kelly. Then, MacPherson called a timeout and brought his seniors over to huddle up and make a season-defining decision.

Syracuse could kick the extra point and finish 10-0-1, or the Orangemen could go for two and ensure that a tie wouldn’t be possible. They decided to take the risk.

The play was originally designed for Johnston. The fullback said McPherson froze the inside linebacker and made the right play. He delivered a pinpoint pass to Michael Owens for the two-point conversion and the win.

“It was a culmination to our season that couldn’t have been written any better,” Gardiner said. “As it turned out, West Virginia was a real good team. It was a really fitting end because it kind of capped off the regular season.”

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