When the Sooners and Aggies tee it up at the Cotton Bowl on January 4, it is expected to be an exciting match up of high-powered offenses. Perhaps the most exciting bowl game ever for OU was the 1981 Orange Bowl, which found the Sooners also relying on its offensive firepower to score a thrilling win.
The 1980 Sooners began Barry Switzer’s eighth season at 2-2 with wins over Kentucky and Colorado, but they dropped games against Stanford and Texas. After starting at No. 5 in the preseason, Oklahoma had fallen to 17th in the polls. The Sooners swept their next seven games, which included an out-of conference win over North Carolina, and captured the Big Eight conference title. They had climbed their way back to No. 4 in the country. As Big Eight champs, they got an automatic bid to the Orange Bowl to meet second-ranked Florida State.
The 10-1 Seminoles had outscored their opponents by an average of 32 to 7. They lost to Miami 10-9, but, just like OU, rebounded to win their final seven games, too.
A crowd of 71,043 spectators turned out for the 47th Orange Bowl Classic on News Year’s night of 1981.
The defense of the second-ranked Seminoles had contained OU’s offense most of the night, but the Sooners still managed to keep the game close with its own solid defense. Both teams missed field goals in the first quarter, and FSU took a 7-0 lead with 49 seconds until halftime. The Sooners quickly marched to the FSU 37 and Michael Keeling booted a 53-yard field goal to end the half and close the deficit to 7-3. Keeling’s kick set a new Orange Bowl record.
Oklahoma took the second half kickoff and drove 78 yards in 12 plays, using up six minutes to take the lead. From the FSU four-yard line, J.C. Watts pitched the ball to David Overstreet, who followed Steve Rhodes’ block and swept across the goal line. Keeling nailed the extra point and OU led, 10-7, with 8:59 left in the quarter. Watts had a 20-yard run to spark the drive and overcome a fourth-down situation.
The ’Noles added a field goal late in the third period and moments after recovering a fumble at the OU 17.
Early in the fourth period, OU’s offense stalled and Keeling set up to punt. The ball sailed through his hands and rolled into the end zone where FSU’s All-American cornerback Bobby Butler smothered it to add six more points for his squad. Following the extra point, Florida State led, 17-10, with 11:07 left in the game.
The ’Noles had to be feeling confident at that point, because their defense had not allowed opponents to score in the fourth quarter all season.
The Sooners would get one final chance with 3:19 to go and the ball at their own 22. Watts tossed a screen pass to Overstreet off the right side for seven yards. On the next play, the Seminoles’ Arthur Scott sacked Watts for a six-yard loss.
On third-and-nine, Watts found Rhodes open at the FSU 48. After the catch, Rhodes eluded a couple of Seminole defenders and gained 13 more yards, advancing the ball to the FSU 35. Coaches drew up that pass play at halftime for Rhodes, who had been unsure that he was even going to get to play in the game due to a pulled hamstring.
On the next play, Watts overthrew Jim Rockford on a fly pattern in the end zone. With 2:03 left on the clock, Watts completed a pass to Chet Winters for 14 yards to the FSU 21. On the next play, three Seminole defenders rushed Watts who lobbed the ball toward Winters. FSU’s Garry Futch got between Watts and Winters and had a chance to intercept the pass, but juggled the pigskin and couldn’t hold on. If he had, no one was between him and the OU goal line.
On second-and-10, Watts was bottled up in the backfield, then took off to his left and scrambled for an 11-yard gain. He went out of bounds at the 10 with 1:38 remaining. Watts then passed to Rockford in the end zone. FSU linebacker Jarvis Coursey stepped in front of the OU receiver and, he too, could not hold on to the football.
On the next play, Watts rolled right and fired the ball to Rockford, who dove to the ground clutching the ball in the end zone. Down, 17-16, the Sooners went for two.
Again, Watts sprinted right and lofted the ball to tight end Forrest Valora all alone in the end zone. Oklahoma led, 18-17, with 1:27 left. Watts, who was knocked unconscious in the third quarter, completed four passes in the go-ahead drive, which took nine plays and covered 78 yards.
Florida State took the kickoff and marched to the OU 45. With five seconds left, FSU kicker Bill Capece attempted a 62-yard field goal, but the kick lost its zip, and the ball dropped short of the goal posts.
Watts, who completed seven of 12 passes for 128 yards and ran for 48, was named the game’s most valuable player for the second straight year. He also received the honor for his performance in OU’s 24-7 win over Florida State in the 1980 Orange Bowl.
“We were going to leave it on the field,” Watts said after the game. “Win or lose—no tie.”
“It’s just unbelievable ... a great finish,” coach Barry Switzer said.
The Sooners finished the year third behind Georgia and Pittsburgh.