When we looked back on the entirety of the 1984 Army football season, and how restorative it was for the West Point football family, one point drilled home at every opportunity was that while Army played some non-FBS games against the Ivy League (which had just punted away its Division I-A status after the 1981 campaign), it did extremely well in its showcase games against prominent FBS teams. Army left no doubt in the 1984 regular season that it was made of sterner stuff. The team forcefully claimed the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy and began its most prosperous period in the history of the CIC series involving Air Force and Navy.
The 1985 season was not without its shining moments -- Army did, after all, lose only three games out of 11 -- but when the Cadets made their way to Atlanta for the Peach Bowl against Illinois, the feeling in and around the locker room just wasn't the same.
After taking care of Air Force and Navy in 1984, Army fell flat against the Falcons and Midshipmen the following autumn. Army scored only seven points in both games against its service academy rivals. When the Cadets bombed Boston College (a team that had won the Cotton Bowl the season before) by a 45-14 count on October 12, it seemed that everything was within Army's reach. Having won the first bowl game in the program's history in 1984 (the Cherry Bowl over Michigan State), Army had every right to expect even bigger things in 1985. The blowout of Boston College affirmed those lofty aspirations.
Then, however, the trajectory of the season took an abrupt turn.
One early indicator of the struggles that awaited Army came in South Bend. Even though the 1985 Notre Dame team -- the last under embattled and soon-to-be-fired head coach Gerry Faust -- was extremely vulnerable, the Irish handled Army, limiting the Cadets to only 10 points. That game, on paper, was the most challenging and high-profile contest for Army before the team took on Colgate and Holy Cross the next two weeks, as "breathers" on the schedule before the crucial closing stretch. However, after getting by those two games (the Colgate one was uncomfortably close, a 45-43 survival act at Michie Stadium), Army did not play like a mentally or physically renewed team against Air Force (November 9) or Navy (December 7). The memory of the 45-point explosion against Boston College faded into the background, and Jim Young's team abruptly lost its hold on the CIC Trophy, cradling the prized piece of hardware for only one year.
Army had three and a half weeks in which to prepare for the 1985 Peach Bowl, and those three weeks presented the team with a challenge that was simple in theory but difficult in practice: Pick yourself off the deck and compete with marked determination and intensity.
Realize this about Army's opponent in Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium 30 years ago: Illinois was enjoying its best period of prosperity since the 1960s. The Illini had reached the 1984 Rose Bowl after winning the Big Ten championship and toppling mighty Michigan in the process. Coach Mike White, not yet 50 years old, was a rising star in the industry. Jack Trudeau, who made the NFL and stayed there for a brief while, was a marvelously talented quarterback. Two years after the Rose Bowl season, White and Trudeau were still together, giving Illinois an extremely formidable offense. Army had to contain the Illini to the extent that it could, and come up with the scoring flurries it had lacked against Air Force and Navy.
Jim Young was a coach who found solutions to Army's problems -- not just in the restorative 1984 season, but for most of his career at West Point. In terms of a single-game performance, the 1985 Peach Bowl might have been his finest hour as Army's head coach. Young wasn't just clever in this game; he realized something essential about coaching: Bold decisions aren't just valuable for what they bring to the table in terms of tactics; being bold can, in itself, inspire players to do more, to find levels of determination that might have been lacking. Bold coaching can stimulate players, generating the kinds of responses less creative coaching often fails to bring about. This is really how Army won the Peach Bowl, and left the 1985 season saying, "You know what? We had our struggles in big games, but we were still pretty darn good after all!"
It's one thing for a team to score one touchdown in a bowl game (or any football game) on a trick play. It's quite another thing for a team to score two trick-play touchdowns in the same game, and even more of a feat to score two touchdowns on the SAME trick play. Yet, that's what Young and Army did against the Illini. Army snookered Illinois on two separate halfback-option passes -- one thrown by William Lampley and the other by Clarence Jones. Bennie White caught Lampley's aerial, and Scott Spellmon hauled in Jones's pass to give Army a 28-23 lead late in the game. When the Cadets tacked on a field goal for a 31-23 lead, they knew that while they might still fail to win, they certainly would not lose. College football had, of course, not yet instituted its overtime format in 1985.
Fitting in with the nature of the 1985 season, Army didn't make things easy for itself in the final minute. A lapse in the secondary enabled Illinois' David Williams to score a 54-yard touchdown on a reception of a Trudeau bomb. When Illinois lined up for the ensuing 2-point conversion, the reality of a tie -- after all those trick plays and creative maneuvers, after four quarters of spirited competition on a rainy field in Georgia -- was uncomfortably close for the Cadets. The way in which the 1985 season would be remembered was squarely on the line.
Army held that line by breaking up Trudeau's 2-point pass.
In one moment, the prospect of losing -- not a game, but certainly a victory that meant so much to a band of brothers -- was wiped away. In one moment, a team that lost the two games it wanted to win in 1985 sealed the triumph which gave the season an enduringly satisfying taste. Not broken, but certainly battered, after losing to Air Force and Navy, the 1985 Army team responded to a series of disappointments with the resilience every West Point man hopes to display in a time of testing and trial.
This moment in Atlanta, three full decades ago, carries a warm and radiant afterglow even to this day.