This feature originally appeared in Nov. 1, 2008 edition of Army Football Gameday vs. Air Force.
Army’s vaunted wishbone attack in the 1980s led the Black Knights to three bowl games within a five-year span under legendary coach Jim Young, and today the 1988 Sun Bowl team that battled nationally-ranked Alabama on Christmas Eve will be recognized during a special halftime tribute.
The 1988 team recorded a 9-2 mark, won the coveted Commander in Chief’s Trophy after defeating both Navy and Air Force, finished third in the Lambert Trophy balloting, played Boston College at the Emerald Isle Classic in Dublin, Ireland, and earned a berth to the John Hancock Sun Bowl in San Antonio, Texas.
However, the season didn’t look quite as promising during preseason camp back in August. Army had suffered through a 5-6 season the year before and 14 starters were gone, including quarterback Tory Crawford, who had closed out his career ranked fifth at the Academy in rushing along with 43 touchdowns (35 rushing, eight passing).
Only two starters returned on offense in junior fullback Ben Barnett and sophomore halfback Mike Mayweather, who would go on to become Army’s career rushing leader by the end of his junior year, eclipsing the mark held by all-time great Glenn Davis.
Defensively, Army could draw on its senior class, but replacements would still have to be found for several players
The season began with a 23-2 win over a Holy Cross team that had captured the Division I-AA title the year before and brought a 12-game winning streak into Michie Stadium. The win was a good omen as it provided Young with his 100th career coaching victory and set the stage for what would prove to be an unforgettable year.
A 31-17 road loss at Washington followed in a game much closer than the score indicated. The Cadets had battled back from a 17-3 halftime deficit to draw to 24-17 in the fourth quarter. But with the ball inside the Huskies five yard-line, quarterback Otto Leone was stopped inches shy of a first down at the two. Then, later in the game, a pass interception off a deflection led to a 72-yard Huskie touchdown return with 1:10 left.
Game heroics belonged to Army the next game after overcoming a 7-3 halftime deficit to turn back Northwestern, 23-7, in opening a seven-game win streak, the longest since 1954.
The 34-24 defeat of Rutgers at Giants Stadium on Oct. 22 gave Young’s squad a 5-1 mark that put the team back into the bowl picture for the first time in three years.
Bowl interest grew stronger following a 28-15 defeat of Air Force, while Army’s rallying 24-19 win over Vanderbilt on the heels of a late 63-yard scoring drive that resulted not only in the victory, but an invite to the John Hancock Sun Bowl.
“We had several folks from bowl committees visiting our games, but the only firm offer we had was from the Sun Bowl,” noted former Army athletic director Carl Ullrich.
“Selection for a bowl game during that time frame was different from today with each conference having x number of teams going,” explained Coach Young. “That was not the way it was done then. Bowl committees came to some of our games and scouted us.
“We were happy to be invited, and the fact that we would play Alabama was very exciting. We were looking forward to playing them.”
The Black Knights still had two games remaining on their regular-season schedule, Boston College on Nov. 19 and Navy on Dec. 3.
A 38-24 loss to Boston College at the Emerald Isle Classic in the first major-college football game ever to be contested on the continent of Europe took some of the joy out of Army’s celebration.
The Eagles did not play like a team that was 2-7. They never trailed as they scored first, last and in between in a game played at Lansdowne Road soccer stadium in Dublin, Ireland.
“We were in Ireland close to a week and got a feel for the country. It was a challenge and great experience for everyone,” remembered Young, “but we would have liked to have won the game.”
A win over arch-rival Navy quickly took the sting out of the loss to the Eagles with Bryran McWilliams, who took the quarterback reins in the fourth game of the season, carrying the ball for an eight-yard touchdown keeper that put Army in front, 20-9. The Midshipmen scored with 1:35 remaining, but their two-point conversion pass attempt fell incomplete and an onside kick attempt was recovered by Mark Mooney at the Army 42 as the Black Knights ended the regular season on a perfect note with a 20-15 victory that tied the all-time series, 41-41-7.
Army’s nine wins equaled the school record for season victories, the most recent in 1985 when the Black Knights defeated Illinois in the Peach Bowl. With the victory came the Commander in Chief’s Trophy, awarded annually to the winner of the round-robin competition among Army, Air Force and Navy.
With the season extended, the Cadets team would have one more chance to show their mettle with a date to play Alabama on Christmas Eve in the 55th-annual Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, telecast nationally by CBS.
Alabama was the most challenging team Army had faced it its two previous bowl appearances when the Cadets defeated Michigan State (10-6) at the 1984 Cherry Bowl followed by a 32-29 edging of Illinois the next year at the Peach Bowl.
Alabama, playing in its 41st bowl game, came into the game with an 8-3 mark and ranked No 20 nationally along with listing fifth in rushing defense.
The Crimson Tide opened their season romping over Temple (37-0) and Vanderbilt (37-0), then edged Kentucky 31-27 following an 86-yard touchdown drive in the waning moments. The Tide rebounded from a 22-12 defeat at the hands of Ole Miss with wins over Tennessee (28-20), Penn State (8-3) and Mississippi State (53-34) to stand 6-1. They split their final four games of the season suffering a 15-10 defeat to Auburn (which went on to play in the Sugar Bowl) and 19-18 edging to LSU, while beating Southwest Louisiana (17-0) and Texas A&M (30-10).
“Army was in the midst of a great season and everyone was very upbeat and optimistic, and we were not scared that we would be playing Alabama,” added Ullrich. “I recall there was great excitement and felt that this was a great challenge and by gum we were up to it.”
The game was featured as the air attack (Alabama) vs. the ground attack (Army), and the Crimson Tide was favored by 14 points. No other team in all of the 17 postseason bowl matches was a bigger underdog then the Black Knights.
A headline in one of the El Paso newspapers the morning of the game said “Army has class, Bama has talent.” The writer called attention to the fact that the game would be Football Factory U’s time to shine, but not only did Army win respect in that game, but showed it had its share of talent as well. .
Young and his squad shocked the Bama press and fans when they scored less than three minutes into the game before a crowd of 48,719. The Cadets led, 14-13, by halftime after pounding out 232 rushing yardage. However, two blocked field goals in the second quarter by All-American and Butkus Award winner Derrick Thomas would come back to haunt Army.
Alabama took its first lead of the game, 20-14, early in the third quarter on a 69-yard drive that culminated in a 23-yard down pass from David Smith to Greg Payne.
It proved short lived as Army answered back behind a 58-yard breakaway run that set up Mayweather’s second score of the day. On the very next series, O’Neal Miller intercepted Smith’s pass for a 57-yard touchdown return as Army went into the final stanza leading, 28-20.
The momentum switched to Alabama in the fourth quarter as Smith put together a pair of fourth-quarter scoring drives ending in a 32-yard field goal and 2-yard touchdown run as the Tide escaped with a 29-28 win in a game that ranks as one of the Top 25 in Sun Bowl history.
Alabama’s defense was ranked fifth nationally with its per-game average of 95.7 yards, yet the Black Knights finished with 350 yards rushing
“Alabama was one of the better teams in the country. We played them and beat them in everything expect the score,” said Coach Young, who will be joined today at halftime by members of the Sun Bowl Team who can look back to the success they enjoyed 20 years ago when Army almost took down Goliath.