Heisman Flashback: 1987 - Tim Brown Catches Himself a Trophy
Back in the mid-1980s, the college football landscape was still very much run-dominated and oriented. There were a few schools that had implanted "air raid" type of passing attacks, and as the decade drew to a close, those schemes became more prevalent as QBs Andre Ware and Ty Detmer, of Houston, and BYU, respectively, won the Heisman in 1989 and 1990 respectively. While both sets of Cougars had implored explosive passing offenses, the norm was still to ground and pound.
Oklahoma was the dominant rushing program of the era, but schools like Nebraksa, Miami FL, Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, and Notre Dame were just a few that still preferred run-heavy schemes. There were some schools that were throwing more, but for the most part, the running game was still dominant. The leading passer in the 1987 season threw 26 TD passes. To put that in perspective, Kyler Murray just threw 40 this season, and Ohio State's Dwayne Haskins led the country with 48.
With this backdrop, Tim Brown and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish started out the 87' campaign with a marque matchup at #9-ranked Michigan. The Irish won the much-anticipated season-opener, 26-7, as Brown hauled in a TD catch to help ND distance themselves from the Wolverines.
Brown had put in a tremendous junior year in 86', setting the school-record for all-purpose yards in a season with 1,937, that included 910 yards and 5 TDs receiving. He also set a new school record for receptions in a season by a freshman with 28 in 1984.
After a career full of accolades, Brown's athleticism and skill were on full display in the team's second game of the 87' season. After the victory over the Wolverines, Notre Dame welcomed #17 Michigan State to South Bend for the home-opener. The Irish made easy work of the Spartans, winning 31-8 behind a highlight-reel performance from Brown, who returned not one, but two punts for scores in the game, going for returns of 71 and 66 yards. The two long punt return TDs solidified Brown's reputation as perhaps the most-dangerous all-around player in the country.
The Irish continued their strong-start to the season, highlighted by a 26-15 victory over rival USC, in which Brown rushed for a score, and an impressive 37-6 victory over #10 Alabama. The victory over the Crimson Tide pushed ND's record to 8-1, and pushed them up the rankings, inside the top 10.
The Fighting Irish would stumble in their last two games, both on the road to difficult opponents, losing @ Penn State and @ Miami FL to finish the season. The 8-3 showing was still good enough to land them a spot in the Cotton Bowl against Texas A&M. They would go on to lose that one, 37-10, and finished the season ranked #17 after going 8-4.
Brown's exciting season, and career full of accomplishments were not forgotten however, as the Heisman voters awarded him with the trophy. He hauled in 39 receptions for 846 yards with 3 receiving scores, averaging a whopping 21.7 yards per catch. He added another 144 yards on the ground with a score, on 34 attempts. While his contributions as a receiver were impressive, it was in the return-game where Brown was just as dangerous, if not more-so. He tallied 456 yards on 19 kickoff returns and was 4th in the country in punt return yardage with 401, averaging 11.8 per return with 3 touchdowns. He tallied 1,847 all-purpose yards for the season and scored 7 total TDs.
While Brown was the first wide receiver to win the award (Michigan's Desmond Howard would join him a few years later as the only other WR to win the trophy), it was his impact not just as a receiver, but as a rusher, and kickoff and punt returner that won him the award. The 87' Heisman was just as much a career-recognition award, as it was for his senior year in particular. By the time Brown played his final game for the Irish following the 87' season, he owned 19 school records and had amassed 5,024 career all-purpose yards (also a school record) and 22 TDs.
Brown went on to enjoy a long, and highly successful NFL career, playing for the Raiders from 1988-2003, and finishing his career in 2004 with the Buccaneers. He piled up 1,094 receptions for 14,934 yards and caught 100 TDs in his Hall-Of-Fame career. The Irish weren't as dominant as many had hoped during his college career (1984-87), but the success they enjoyed his senior season set the foundation for the following season as Notre Dame went on to capture the 1988 National Championship.