52nd Annual Sugar Bowl Classic ~ January 1, 1986
#8 Tennessee 35 (Final: 9-1-2, #4)
#2 Miami 7 (Final: 10-2-0, #9)
How Tennessee and Miami Met in the 1986 Sugar Bowl
It was the Sugar Bowl all right, in New Orleans, and in the Superdome – but anyone would have sworn that someone from the Orange Bowl was in charge of the color scheme.
Everywhere anyone looked, from the plaza level to the terrace, there were miles and miles of orange splashed across the visual sea of 77,432, and most of it was Tennessee orange.
In the decibel count, the Big Orange won, hands down. The din from Tennessee backers was almost a solid wall of Volunteer screams, chants, battle cries and roars. The crowd howled and sang the strains of “Rocky Top” from beginning to end. If the skimpy Miami gathering sang a fight song, no one heard it. The Volunteers’ crowd dominated the Hurricanes’ followers more than the Vols dominated the ‘Canes on the field – and that’s saying a lot, especially for the fans of an eight-and-a-half point underdog.
The Tennessee captains were ignored when they put out their hands for the traditional hand shake at the coin toss. “They just looked the other way,” White said. Running back Jeff Powell snorted, “They were very cocky. I don’t think they respected Tennessee. All this week, Coach (Jimmy) Johnson was talking about the Orange Bowl and who’s going to win, and that they should be national champions because they beat Oklahoma. They should have paid attention to Tennessee.”
That’s for sure.
Miami star quarterback Vinny Testaverde, after having to call a timeout before his first snap because of crowd noise, threw an 18-yard touchdown to Michael Irvin on the game’s first series. The looping, blitzing Vol defense appeared to have held, but the snap for an anticipated fourth-down punt from the 43 went to Marvin Bratton, who shot through the unsuspecting Vols for 25 yards to the 18, setting up the Testavede-to-Irvin connection.
“That kind of got us down,” defensive tackle Mark Hovanic admitted. “But Coach Donahue knew what to do.”
Ken Donahue, the Vols defensive coordinator, switched to a man-to-man defense in the secondary that allowed Tennessee to fire in as many as eight men on key passing downs. Pressure became the name of Tennessee’s game against Miami.
“We looked at (Testaverde) on film and saw other teams had not blitzed him much, and they didn’t have much success covering,” Donahue said. “We changed up our blitzes and fired (alternately) our inside linebackers and safeties.”
No one could have guessed, though, that at that juncture, with Miami up 7-0, the Hurricanes, averaging just under 40 offensive points, were through scoring for the night.
Quarterback Daryl Dickey took the Vols on a 13-play drive, which resulted in no points but made a salient statement: Tennessee could move the ball.
On the next Vols possession, which began on the Miami 41 after a big sack of Testaverde by Richard Brown, the tying touchdown was scored by Jeff Smith from the 6 one play into the second quarter. Dickey cranked up another drive with just under five minutes to go until halftime. On first down at the Miami 9, Powell was stood up just short of the goal. The ball popped out and Tim McGee fell on it for a touchdown and a 14-7 Tennessee lead.
“I wasn’t sure if they had blown the play dead or not,” McGee said. “In fact, I didn’t know it was a touchdown for a couple of minutes.”
By the time the score mounted to a jarring 34-7, with six minutes left and an extra point still to be kicked, the fans were treated to the sight of a player skipping off the field with his index finger raised to the Superdome ceiling. It was Dickey celebrating early the 6-0-1 record he had charted as a starter since Tony Robinson was injured.
Dickey was 15-of-25 for 131 yards a touchdown in a “most outstanding” performance. The Tennessee defense squeezed Miami as it hadn’t been squeezed in years. The Hurricanes had a net of 269 yards, 92 in the fourth quarter. Testaverde was sacked seven times for losses of 84 yards, and was belted into losing the ball three times.
“It was fun while it lasted,” Johnson said of Miami’s long-shot reach for No. 1. “We came close, but no cigar.”
As high as the Vols were flying, though, Sugar Bowl fears had come true. The game was a runaway – only the winner was a surprise – and Oklahoma beat Penn State for the national championship in the Orange Bowl. The rout translated into a 6.8 TV share, worst in Sugar Bowl history.
Yet, a mixture of chemistry, of an unheralded Daryl Dickey at quarterback and retread defensive coordinator Ken Donahue, gave Tennessee one of its most satisfying football moments. The Vols became the biggest underdog to win a Sugar Bowl.
Recap excerpted from the book “Sugar Bowl Classic: A History” by Marty Mulé, who covered the game and the organization for decades for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.