In the most unusual incident to occur during the New Year's Day bowl games, a University of Oklahoma covered wagon drew a 15-yard penalty. As bizarre as this Orange Bowl gaffe was, the blunder seemed an appropriate way to apply the finishing touches to an ``expect the unexpected'' kind of college season. It was a season in which begrudgingly respected Brigham Young University emerged with the nation's only spotless record and a 175-lb. New Englander (Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie) ran away with the Heisman Trophy as the nation's supreme player.
But back to that errant wagon for a minute, because certainly it earned an instant spot in bowl lore. The blooper grew out of an attempt by Oklahoma rooters to celebrate what appeared to be a go-ahead, second-half field goal.
``Whoa,'' intoned hanky-throwing officials, who nullified the boot with a 5-yard, illegal procedure penalty. The real insult, though, came in the form of 15 additional penalty yards for the Sooner Schooner's ill-timed land rush. Oklahoma lined up again to try from long range, but the attempt was blocked and Washington went on to a 28-17 victory.
The wagon's driver told an NBC sideline reporter that the vehicle was cleared to go on the field after touchdowns and field goals, but an Orange Bowl spokesman denied that organizers had issued any green lights.
If all this made for a bit of comic relief, it ultimately couldn't divert attention from the game's real significance as the pivotal contest in voting for the season's No. 1 team.
Top-ranked Brigham Young, the nation's only undefeated, untied team, certainly felt it had wrapped up national honors on Dec. 21 by completing a 13-0 campaign with a gritty 24-17 Holiday Bowl victory over Michigan.
The final wire service polls aren't issued until after New Year's Day, however, and a survey indicated that many writers casting ballots in the Associated Press poll weren't ready to crown BYU's Cougars just yet. Almost 70 percent, NBC learned, wanted to see what No. 2 Oklahoma could do against No. 4 Washington.
In lobbying for his team's promotion, O.U. Coach Barry Switzer kept making the point that BYU didn't play nearly as tough a schedule as Oklahoma, which had ``suffered' a controversial tie to Texas, but lost only to Kansas when the Sooners were without starting quarterback Danny Bradley.
Oklahoma did play more name-brand opponents, but to some degree that may have been a reflection on the storied Big Eight Conference, which has been around a lot longer than the Western Athletic Conference, of which BYU is a member.
All this was just so much apples and oranges debate until the Orange Bowl got to the core of the issue, which is that talking never wins games. BYU won its bowl game; Oklahoma did not.
Oklahoma, of course, was up against a Washington team that had resided atop the wire service polls for several weeks, and looked it in Miami. The Huskies bottled up the Sooners' vaunted triple option attack; gained 192 yards on the ground against this season's stingiest rushing defense; and made the necessary big plays in the fourth quarter, when backup quarterback Hugh Millen gave the team a passing lift.
Washington hails from the Pacific-10 Conference, which is supposedly in a down cycle. The events of New Year's Day should change a few minds, though, since the league scored three victories. Joining Washington in the win column were conference champion Southern California, which beat Ohio State 20-17 in the Rose Bowl, and UCLA, which forced ousted national champion Miami to check into the Heartbreak Hotel once more. UCLA won the Fiesta Bowl 39-37 on a last-minute field goal that sent Miami down to its third straight crushing defeat, while USC put the clamps on superback Keith Byars after a 50-yard jaunt on his first carry.
Flutie was not his normal, brilliant self in the frigid Cotton Bowl, where he completed just 13 of 37 passes. Three of them did go for TDs, however, and this plus a strong Boston College running attack provided the senior with the going-away present he wanted -- a victory in a major bowl, a 45-28 decision over Houston.
In the remaining biggie, Nebraska wore down Louisiana State 28-10 in the Sugar Bowl.
These games, of course, were only the final movement of a month-long symphony of 18 bowl games. And while the New Year's Day games cornered a lion's share of the attention, many of the so-called lesser bowls came through with greater drama. In fact, of the 13 games played in December eight were decided by a touchdown or less and Florida State and Georgia played to a 17-17 draw in the Florida Citrus Bowl.