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The defining play of the 1987 Syracuse Football season

‘The Express’ World Premiere
It took these two 10 seconds to turn around years of futility and define a season
Photo by Marc Squire/Getty Images

The Syracuse Orange will celebrate the 30 year anniversary of the undefeated 1987 squad this weekend during the game against the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders. As part of the celebration, Syracuse Athletics has asked fans to vote for the top five plays from the 87 season and are offering some pretty nice prizes for the Clemson game if you vote.

When you think about the 1987 season a lot of people will think of the sequence against the West Virginia Mountaineers in the final game of the regular season. A last minute touchdown pass from Don McPherson to Pat Kelly followed by Michael Owens taking the option pitch in for the winning two-point conversion is certainly what is replayed when talking about the season.

When I think about the 1987 season, it’s another play which stands out as the top play. It came from a game that our own Invisible Swordsman wrote about five years ago. His thoughts echo my feelings about what the game meant to that team and to the Syracuse program. The game was when Syracuse football announced to the country that it needed to be taken seriously.

It didn’t take long for that announcement to happen as Pat Putnam reported after the game in that Sports Illustrated piece,

“Syracuse called the play on Monday, six days before the Orangemen were expected to continue an old habit, losing to Penn State. "No matter what," coach Dick MacPherson told Don McPherson, his senior quarterback, "on the first play throw the long ball." After 16 straight losses to the Nittany Lions, what did Syracuse have to lose?”

On the first play of the game, quarterback Don McPherson ran the freeze option play and threw the long ball to Rob Moore. 80 yards later the Orange were ahead and never looking back.

The Penn State Nittany Lions had into the Carrier Dome that October day as the defending National Champions. Syracuse hadn’t defeated them since 1970. The Orange could have come out and tried to avoid an early turnover. They could have worried about those previous games and focused on staying close and hoping Penn State would make mistakes.

Instead they went for it right out of the gate. By doing so, Coach Mac sent a message to his team, to the fans, and to the national tv audience watching on CBS. It was one of belief and confidence. It was about sending a message to their opponents that this wasn’t the Syracuse football team of old.

I don’t think it’s far-fetched to think that this attitude helped the 1987 Orange to achieve the undefeated season. If you don’t think this was a confident group, then make sure to watch this outstanding video done by Brent Axe of

That’s why the McPherson to Moore is my choice for defining play of the 1987 season. What’s your choice? Let us know in the comments.