The following feature story chronicles the 1985 Peach Bowl season and appeared in the Football Game Day Program on Nov. 6 and was written by Mady Salvani.
WEST POINT, N.Y. - Twenty-five years ago in the rain and mud in Atlantic, Ga., the 1985 Army football team outlasted Illinois, 31-29, in the Peach Bowl at the Fulton County Stadium on New Year’s Eve.
It was Army’s second straight bowl appearance and second consecutive win over a Big 10 school as the Black Knights defeated Michigan State, 10-6, in the inaugural Cherry Bowl in Pontiac, Mich., on Dec. 22, 1984.
The back-to-back bowl game wins made 1984 and 1985 memorable for former head coach Jim Young, who breathed new life into the football program when he introduced the “wishbone” style of play his second year at the helm (1984).
Today, Coach Young, along with former Athletic Director Carl Ullrich and members of the 1985 Peach Bowl team, will be honored at halftime.
Following the success of the 1984 team, there was concern as to whether the Black Knights could repeat. Army had posted its first winning season (8-3-1) in seven years, ranked as high as 18th in the national polls, defeated Navy and Air Force to win the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, and went to its first-ever post-season bowl game.
Army entered preseason camp minus signal caller Nate Sassaman, several members of the offensive line and three-fourths of the starting defensive secondary. Young was not worried as he felt his program was ahead of schedule and the foundation had been laid with the wishbone.
Among the 37 returning lettermen were senior record setters in fullback Doug Black and placekicker Craig Stopa. Black rushed for 1,148 yards with five 100-plus games to rank 13th nationally in his first season of collegiate ball, while Stopa held field goal records on game, season and career levels. The biggest concern of course was at quarterback, but Young had that well in hand. Senior Rob Healy, who started seven games as a sophomore when Army was in a pro-style offense, took over the head reins with sophomore Tory Crawford as his backup.
“What made the season special were individuals like Doug Black and Rob Healy. They were important in the turnaround of Army football in 1984 and 1985,” stated Young. “I was not surprised with the success we had with the wishbone. We had great groups of individuals both years who were tired of losing and were willing to band together. The triple option enabled us to be competitive, and put us in a position to be third-and-two instead of third-and-10.”
Army ended 1984 capturing its final three games, then got off to a quick 5-0 start in 1985 to stretch its win streak to eight games for the longest since 1950. Highlighting the tail end of that run was a 20-16 edging of Rutgers and 45-14 drubbing of Boston College, the latter earning the Black Knights rankings by Associated Press (19) and United Press International (20). Army’s fortunes were dealt a tough blow in a 24-10 loss at Notre Dame that knocked them out of the rankings.
The Black Knights rebounded as they survived a 45-43 shootout with Colgate by rejecting a pair of two-point conversion attempts, then pulled out another nail biter in a 34-12 win over Holy Cross behind 20 points in the final stanza in expanding on a 14-12 lead.
A 7-1 Army team then took on No. 4 Air Force, but hopes of defending its Command-in-Chief’s trophy was dealt a tough blow as the Falcons turned a close halftime lead (14-0) into a 45-7 rout in a game played in a blizzard.
Representatives from the Peach Bowl were in attendance in Army’s home finale played in snow and sleet at Michie Stadium as the Black Knights were impressive in their 49-7 thrashing of Memphis State for their eighth win and 12th straight at home. That evening, Army was tendered an invitation to participate in the 18th annual Peach Bowl in a game to be televised nationally on Dec. 31. The Black Knights drew an Illinois team that had been ranked No. 1 nationally in some preseason polls.
Before turning its attention to its second straight postseason bid, Army had a date in Philadelphia against arch-rival Navy in what proved to be a disappointment in a 17-7 defeat in the regular-season finale.
Helping take the sting out of that loss was a chance to close out the year on a winning note, which is exactly what Army did against the Fighting Illini at the Peach Bowl. The Black Knights trailed just twice, the last at 23-21 with 10 minutes left in the third quarter, but a 26-yard halfback option pass by Clarence Jones and a 39-yard field goal by Stopa gave Army a 31-23 advantage with just over six minutes remaining.
The passing-oriented Illinois team pulled within two points on a 54-yard touchdown strike with 34 seconds remaining. Safety Peel Chronister denied a game-tying two-point conversion attempt when he batted the pass away as Army ended the season with nine victories for the first time since 1949.
“It was a very gratifying win over a very good opponent in the rain,” stated Coach Young. “Losing to Air Force and Navy was a disappointment, but the win over Illinois made it a very successful season. We won nine games and established that winning the previous season wasn’t a fluke and that we were back to being a winning and successful football program.”
Healy, tabbed the Offensive Player of the Game after rushing for a team-high 107 yards and a touchdown, shared remarks similar to Young’s.
“It was a special season for all of us in that we validated the return of Army football to a winning tradition,” said Healy. “The Peach Bowl was particularly meaningful to me, as it was my senior season and it was a highly reputable bowl. We also appreciated going to a warm weather bowl game, but then, as luck would have it, it rained hard for the game. In the end, I think the weather helped us win.
“When Illinois scored late in the game, I was very surprised. They got the ball with very little time left, so I thought we had the game pretty well wrapped up. When they scored, I was concerned, but I really thought we would stop them. We all crossed our fingers or prayed or both. When Peel knocked the ball loose, it was a tremendous feeling of sheer joy! The satisfaction in beating a major Big 10 program like Illinois was really tremendous.”