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Tom Osborne made a gutsy call, but when the play failed, Nebraska lost the 1984 Orange Bowl and national championship to Miami.

By Sal Maiorana
CBS SportsLine Historian

MIAMI (Jan. 1, 1984) - Tom Osborne looked no different than he has at any other time during his 25 years as head coach at Nebraska, even though the door to pandemonium had just been blown off its hinges.

The Nebraska sideline resembled the mosh pit on the Lollapalooza tour as his red-clad football players were jumping up and down and slamming their bodies into each other in celebration of Jeff Smith's 24-yard touchdown run.

That dynamic play, in a do-or-die fourth-and-8 situation, had pulled the No.1-ranked Cornhuskers to within one point of upset-minded Miami with 48 seconds left to play in the 1984 Orange Bowl. Yet there Osborne stood, stoic as always, calm, controlled, his face frozen in deep, emotionless concentration while all around him, the term melodrama was being re-defined.

After battling back from a 17-0 first-quarter deficit to pull even early in the third quarter, then falling behind again by 14 points before the third quarter had ended, Nebraska was now one extra point away from forging a tie with the fifth-ranked Hurricanes which would lock up Osborne's long-awaited first national championship, and the school's first in 12 years.

But in the tumultuous seconds that followed Smith's dash to the end zone, Osborne surmised that settling for the tie would tarnish the Cornhuskers' championship. So, in a move that turned the state of Nebraska upside down faster than a prairie tornado, Osborne kept placekicker Scott Livingston glued to the bench and sent in a no-guts-no-glory two-point conversion play.

"We were trying to win the game," Osborne said. "I don't think we should go for the tie in that case. We wanted an undefeated season and a clear-cut national championship."

They got neither. Miami defensive back Ken Calhoun deflected Turner Gill's pass intended for Smith in the right front portion of the end zone, and the ball bounced off Smith's shoulder pad before falling incomplete. As the ball lay on the tattered sod of Miami's ancient and historic stadium, the hometown fans - stunned by what had just happened - exploded in glee.

THE INCLOMPLETION SECURED MIAMI'S 31-30 VICTORY, handed the Hurricanes their first national championship, and sent Osborne, his players, and thousands of proud, rabid Nebraska fans who had made the journey to the Sunshine State back to the plains trying to make sense out of perhaps the Cornhuskers' most heartbreaking defeat.

"It's a deep, bad feeling right now," said Smith. "I'm disappointed. We were looking forward to winning."

Until the Cornhuskers won back-to-back national titles in 1994 and 1995, Osborne had become known as the coach who couldn't win the big game. Heading into the 1983 campaign, Osborne had led Nebraska to five straight seasons of at least nine wins. In four of those years, his team participated in a New Year's Day bowl game, but had won only once. Since taking over for legendary Bob Devaney in 1973, his overall regular-season record was 89-20-2 with four Big 8 titles, but his bowl mark was an uninspiring 6-4.

In 1983, it seemed like Osborne was finally ready to make his mark, though. The Cornhuskers' offense was one of the greatest in the history of college football as it averaged 547 yards per game - 402 on the ground - and it produced 84 touchdowns and 624 points - still NCAA records - on its way to 12 straight victories. Among the scores: 44-6 over defending national champion Penn State in the Kickoff Classic, 84-13 over Lou Holtz-coached Minnesota, 63-7 over Syracuse, 69-19 over Colorado, 72-29 over Iowa State and 67-13 over Kansas.

Running back Mike Rozier won the Heisman Trophy as he rushed for 2,148 yards and scored an NCAA record-tying 29 touchdowns, receiver Irving Fryar accumulated 1,267 all-purpose yards and 10 TDs, and guard Dean Steinkuhler won both the Outland and Lombardi trophies as the top lineman in the country.

"They looked like the Dallas Cowboys," said Miami defensive tackle Kevin Fagan. "The age in their faces. They were the biggest human beings I ever saw in my life."

When they arrived in Miami, the 11-point favored Cornhuskers were a confident bunch, eager to shed their image as a big-game flop and finish off their monumental season. Standing in their way, though, were the brash, on-the-rise Hurricanes.

When Howard Schnellenberger had taken over at Miami in 1979, he said "the program reminded me of a terminal patient on life support, with the head nurse about to pull the plug."

BUT FOLLOWING A 5-6 SEASON, Schnellenberger turned things around and Miami posted records of 9-3, 9-2 and 7-4. The 1983 season got off to a bad start when the Hurricanes lost their opener to rival Florida, 28-3, but they won their final 10 games, including a 20-0 whipping of Notre Dame and a 17-16 conquest of Florida State on Jeff Davis' 19-yard field goal on the final play.

Led by freshman quarterback Bernie Kosar, Miami had an explosive passing game that also featured receiver Eddie Brown and tight end Glenn Dennison, and a talented running back tandem of Albert Bentley and Alonzo Highsmith. More impressive was the quick, aggressive defense led by linebackers Jay Brophy, Ken Sisk and Jack Fernandez. The Hurricanes allowed an average of just 259.4 yards per game, second-best in the country behind Texas; had yielded only 78 points during the 10-game winning streak; and the longest gain against them all year had been 28 yards.

"This will be the best defense we faced all year," Osborne said.

The Hurricanes were ranked fifth in the AP poll, their highest level ever, and their 10 victories were the most in school history. This was their first appearance in a major bowl since the 1951 team lost to Clemson in the Orange Bowl, and they had won 22 of their last 24 games in their home stadium, the Orange Bowl.

WHILE NEBRASKA KNEW A WIN WOULD CLINCH the national title, the Hurricanes realized they would need plenty of help if they hoped to wind up No. 1. By the time they took the field, they had gotten plenty.

Earlier in the day, No. 2 Texas had been upset by Georgia in the Cotton Bowl, and No. 4 Illinois had been crushed by UCLA in the Rose Bowl. And with No. 3 Auburn (10-1) playing a tough Michigan team in the Sugar Bowl, there was a possibility of another upset. Armed with all this information, the Hurricanes began to think that if they could somehow slay the Nebraska beast, a victory over the nation's best team would outweigh an Auburn win over Michigan and give them a chance at being voted No. 1.

And in the first quarter, they played like national champions. In a shocking display, the Hurricanes stormed their way to a 17-0 lead.

Miami won the toss and decided to kickoff, trusting its stout defense to set a tone against the potent Nebraska offense. The Cornhuskers almost made Schnellenberger look foolish as Fryar caught a five-yard pass and Rozier ripped off runs of 27 and 18 yards to the Miami 30. However, the drive stalled there, and Livingston's 45-yard field goal attempt was blocked by Fagan and recovered by Fred Robinson at the Miami 43.

Kosar went right to work, hitting Stanley Shakespeare for gains of 23 and 22 yards before tossing a one-yard TD pass to Dennison on a third-and-goal play. After a Nebraska punt, Kosar marched his team to a 45-yard Davis field goal, the key plays being a 12-yard pass to Brown on third-and-8 from the Miami 45, and an 18-yard Highsmith run.

Nebraska hadn't trailed by this much all year, and soon, it got worse. Gill was intercepted by Fernandez at the Miami 35, and four plays later, Kosar hit Dennison on a 22-yard post pattern for a 17-0 lead. Kosar thought he had a 50-yard TD to Brown two plays before, but Shakespeare was nailed for clipping, so Miami had to settle for a 19-yard gain to the Nebraska 31. After a nine-yard Highsmith run, Dennison broke free over the middle and Kosar was right on target.

NEBRASKA FINALLY SNAPPED OUT OF ITS FUNK in the second quarter when Dave Burke picked off a Kosar pass at his own 26, and Gill proceeded to march his team 74 yards in 12 plays to a critical touchdown. The scoring play was one of the most unique in bowl history. On third-and-5 from the Miami 19, Gill took the snap, then placed the ball deliberately on the ground. Steinkuhler, the right guard, picked it up on the Fumblerooskie and lumbered around left end untouched until Willie Martinez caught him near the goal line. Steinkuhler had enough momentum and power to carry Martinez into the end zone to get the Cornhuskers within 17-7.

"It's just a misdirection thing," Steinkuhler said. "When the play was called, I was kind of in shock because we were moving the ball well. I really hoped we wouldn't have to use it, but we were just too sporadic on offense."

After a Miami punt, Rozier carried six times for 41 yards during a 64-yard drive that ended with Gill's one-yard TD run 2:17 before halftime, and then, on the first play from scrimmage in the third quarter, Mike Keeler forced Miami's Keith Griffin to fumble and Burke recovered for Nebraska at the Hurricanes 23. That set up Livingston's 34-yard field goal which tied the game.

Throughout the stadium, and across the country, fans probably assumed the Nebraska machine was now in gear and it would blow the Hurricanes off the field. Not quite. Kosar answered with a nine-play, 75-yard drive that ended with Highsmith leaping over from the one. And less than five minutes later, Bentley danced in from the seven to cap a 73-yard march aided by a 29-yard pass interference penalty on Nebraska's Bill Weber, a 25-yard Kosar to Griffin pass, and a 10-yard pass to Brown on third-and-10 from the 17.

"THAT WAS THE KEY," Kosar said of the two third-quarter scoring drives. "We had gotten out of our game plan and let them come back. We were throwing too much, we lost the balance that we needed to have. But we got it back. When you have to do it, you do it. That's what champions are made of. That's when you show your character."

Said Osborne: "We seemed to gain some momentum back in the second quarter. Then at the onset of the third quarter we were the better football team. They regained that momentum in the third quarter, and in the fourth quarter, we got it back."

But the Cornhuskers didn't get all the way back. They fell one point short.

Nebraska was without Rozier from the midway point of the third quarter as he went down with a sprained ankle. However, Smith stepped in and was brilliant, and it was his running that gave Nebraska a chance to win. With eight minutes left, the Cornhuskers were faced with fourth-and-1 at the Miami 14, and Smith plowed through for eight yards, then eventually scored on a one-yard dive to make it 31-24.

Miami began its ensuing series at its own 6, but Kosar put together a masterful drive that went 68 yards and consumed five minutes of the clock. However, when Davis missed a 41-yard field goal, Nebraska had hope, starting from its own 26 with 1:47 left.

Gill, not known for his passing prowess, fired a 29-yard missile to Fryar, then connected with Ricky Simmons for 19 yards to the Miami 26. On second down from there, Fryar dropped a sure TD at the goal line, but on fourth-and-8, Smith took an option pitch from Gill and scooted around right end 24 yards for the touchdown that made it 31-30.

"No, it never even entered my head," Osborne said when asked if he considered kicking the extra point. "I guess I'm not very smart."

His players agreed wholeheartedly with the call.

"There was no question we were going to go for it," Gill said. "We had a 50-50 chance, but we lost. It feels like we haven't done anything all year."

Said Steinkuhler: "I think coach Osborne did the right thing. He's probably going to take a lot of flak for it, but it was a team thing, I'm sure. If he had taken a vote, I'm sure all the players would have voted to go for the two. We came here to win."

They won respect, but not the game.

GILL DROPPED BACK, and as Fryar cut across to the right, Smith ran a short hook pattern into the right front of the end zone. Fryar set a pick on Eddie Williams, who was covering Smith, but Calhoun - who was on Fryar originally - read the play, slid off Fryar, and picked up Smith just in time to get a hand on the ball.

"I was covering Fryar, but I knew in the huddle they wouldn't go to him," Calhoun said. "Everybody knew they would go to Fryar, so I figured the Nebraska coaches would try something different. We had to play one play like we never had before. I looked at it as one play left in the ballgame, one play before everybody would realize their dreams."

Said Smith: "It was a little behind me and I turned around to try to get my hand on the ball. It hit my shoulder pads and I couldn't hold on."

Schnellenberger was not surprised Osborne elected to go for two.

"We knew, I knew, everybody in the state of Nebraska knew they were going for two," he said. "He is a class guy, a winner, and he did what his type of individual will do in that situation. We would have done the same thing."

POSTSCRIPT: The next day, the Hurricanes received 47.5 first-place votes and 1,168.5 points overall in the final AP poll, while Nebraska got 4.5 first-place votes and 1,109.5 points. Auburn (11-1), which beat Michigan, 9-7, in the Sugar Bowl and had played eight bowl teams during the season and lost only once, received 7 first-place votes, and 1,079 points to finish third. The UPI poll had the teams in the same order.

Schnellenberger left Miami a few months later to take what he thought was a head coaching job in the U.S. Football League, but that never materialized. After a year off, he took the head job in his hometown of Louisville, and helped revitalize the Cardinals program. He left Louisville for Oklahoma in 1995, spent a disappointing season there, and quit. He has not coached since.

IT TOOK OSBOURNE 11 MORE YEARS to finally achieve his first national title as his Cornhuskers beat Miami 24-17 in the 1995 Orange Bowl. Nebraska then repeated as champions thanks to a 62-24 shellacking of Florida in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl.

Box score

Nebraska     0  14   3  13  -  30
Miami       17   0  14   0  -  31

Mia - Dennison 2 pass from Kosar (J. Davis kick), 5:02.
Mia - J. Davis 45 field goal, 10:09.
Mia - Dennison 22 pass from Kosar (J. Davis kick), 13:52.
Neb - Steinkuhler 19 run with intentional fumble 
      (Livingston kick), 6:06.
Neb - Gill 1 run (Livingston kick), 12:43.
Neb - Livingston 34 field goal, 1:51.
Mia - Highsmith 1 run (J. Davis kick), 5:23.
Mia - Bentley 7 run (J. Davis kick), 10:16.
Neb - J. Smith 1 run (Livingston kick), 8:05.
Neb - J. Smith 24 run (pass failed), 14:12.
	Att - 72,549


TEAM STATISTICS         Neb         Mia
First downs              24          22
Rushes-yards         56-287      28-130
Passing yards           172         300
Total net yards         459         430
Passing             16-30-1     19-35-1
Return yards            126         128
Punts-average        3-37.3      4-41.8
Fumbles-lost            6-1         1-1
Penalties-yards        4-51      13-101
Time of possession    32:07       27:53

INDIVIDUAL STATISTICS

RUSHING - Miami: Bentley 10-46, Griffin 9-41, Highsmith 7-50, Kosar 2- (-7). Nebraska: Rozier 25-147, Schellen 6-16, Fryar 2-4, Brungardt 2-6, Gill 11-19, J. Smith 9-99, Simmons 1- (-4).

PASSING - Miami: Kosar 19-35-1 - 300. Nebraska: Gill 16-30-1 - 172.

RECEIVING - Miami: Shakespeare 3-63, Dennison 3-44, Brown 6-115, Bentley 3-36, Highsmith 1-7, Griffin 3-35. Nebraska: Fryar 5-61, Rozier 2-4, Engebritson 2-21, Simmons 2-34, Schellen 2-15, Kimball 2-21, Frain 1-16.


IN OTHER NEWS ON JAN. 1, 1984

ON THE FRONT PAGE: W. Wilson Goode, the first black mayor of Philadelphia, was sworn in, and he called his election to the city's highest seat "a journey once thought impossible, a dream which could never come true. But in America, dreams can come true."

In Santiago, Cuba, Fidel Castro, marking the 25th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, denounced the Reagan Administration, saying the United States was under the leadership of "Nazi-fascist barbarians" who have been "blinded by their own stupidity."

THE SPORTS SECTION: In the Sugar Bowl, Auburn's Al Del Greco kicked three field goals, the last with 23 seconds left to play, giving the third-ranked Tigers a 9-7 victory over Michigan.

In the Cotton Bowl, Georgia quarterback John Lastinger scored on a 17-yard rollout with 3:22 left, giving the Bulldogs a shocking 10-9 upset of previously unbeaten and second-ranked Texas.

In the Rose Bowl, UCLA routed No. 4 Illinois, 45-9, as Rick Neuheisel tied a school and Rose Bowl record with four touchdown passes. He completed 22 of 31 passes for 298 yards.

In the Fiesta Bowl, Mike Tomczak's 39-yard touchdown pass to Thad Jemison with 39 seconds remaining lifted Ohio State to a 28-23 victory over Pittsburgh. Tomczak had completed just 5 of 21 passes in the second half before the winning TD.

SOURCES: The Miami Herald, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, The Associated Press.

     

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