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A Look Back to the 1987 Season: A Special One in SU Football History

The 1987 Syracuse Football Team Poses for a Team Picture
1987 Syracuse Football Team Photo

Syracuse football started the season 6-0 for the first time since 1987 and just the third time since 1935. The 2022 and 1987 teams have been compared all season long, but what really happened 35 years ago?

In 1987, the program went undefeated finishing 11-0-1. The season prior, 1986, the Orange didn’t have as much success. SU finished under .500 (5-6). Former Syracuse quarterback Don McPherson remembers a specific loss from 1986 that contributed to the winning ways the following season.

“The most significant game for the ’87 team was the ’86 loss to Rutgers, McPherson said. We should not have lost to Rutgers. We realized we weren’t good, and we should’ve beat Rutgers.”

The 16-10 loss at home to the Scarlet Knights capped off a four-game losing streak to start the campaign. But every good team, typically, needs to lose first before they win.

During training camp ahead of the 1987 season, McPherson, one of the team captains, proposed the team take a no-alcohol pledge. He admits he was nervous at first and shocked when the group - specifically the upperclassmen - bought in.

Syracuse Quarterback Don McPherson Extending the Play with his Legs
SU QB Don McPherson Charges up the Field

“We went out and played our game, said McPherson. We didn’t care about what people thought and everyone handled their business. Talent-wise, skill-wise and scheme-wise and all that we were as good as anyone. We thought of ourselves as lunch pail guys. Once we got good, once we felt like we could beat anyone, the cockiness was there but it was couched in a humble, working-class way.”

Syracuse stormed out to an impressive 5-0 start outscoring teams 128-58. None of the teams were ranked, so when the Orange welcomed #10 Penn State to town it was deemed the measuring stick game.

“It wasn’t just a belief moment, McPherson said. It was almost like the exclamation point on the belief. We hadn’t beaten Penn State in 17 years. Not only were they Penn State, they were the defending National champs, so there were all kinds of exclamations and superlatives on the game. It wasn’t like there was an air lift out of the balloon, it was like the balloon exploded.”

It was a statement win. 48-21 the final score and Syracuse was 6-0 with no other ranked opponents in front of them. But being undefeated came with added pressure.

“The toughest thing about being undefeated is staying undefeated, McPherson said. The toughest thing is not losing your focus and, in hindsight, the thing I loved about our team is that we stayed really focused on this notion of one down, one to go.”

The stage was set. Syracuse finished the regular season a perfect 11-0 and met #6 Auburn in the Sugar Bowl, somewhere McPherson didn’t think his team would be.

“We were underdogs, McPherson said. We were also the team that was coming from the north with a losing record the previous year to play the winners of the SEC. We weren’t supposed to be there.”

The game didn’t really go as anyone had planned. Auburn kicked a game-tying field goal with one second remaining to result in a 16-16 tie. Despite the stalemate being the lone blemish on SU’s “perfect” record, McPherson didn’t see it that way.

“As much as it was a bittersweet moment for all of us, all of these years later we do stick our chests out, McPherson said. We know we kicked Auburn’s butt and they had to kick a field goal to tie us in the final seconds.”

At the end of the day, tie or not, the Syracuse football program has had just two undefeated seasons in 133 years and 1987 was one of them.

“We did something special, McPherson said. It’s been 35 years and prior to that I think it was 29 years since the ’59 team and so we knew what we did was special and unique.”