On Jan. 2, 1984, the top-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers took on the upstart Miami Hurricanes in the Orange Bowl. It was a matchup of No. 1 vs. No. 5, a legendary program taking on a team with just one bowl appearance in the previous 15 seasons. The Huskers entered the game 12–0. The season prior, Nebraska stormed to a No. 3 AP ranking and an Orange Bowl victory over LSU. Under coach Tom Osborne, the Huskers had notched at least nine wins every year since 1973.
With an offense that averaged 50 points per game, Nebraska was dominant and had its best shot at the its first national championship in the Osborne era. Led by Heisman-winning running back Mike Rozier and quarterback Turner Gill, it seemed as though the Huskers would romp to the title, especially against a Miami team that had lost its opening game to Florida 28–3.
Long before becoming “The U,” the Hurricanes were considered an afterthought in the state of Florida and hardly registered on the national scale. Coach Howard Schnellenberger was in his fifth season and had taken the Canes as high as No. 15 in 1982. His biggest postseason accomplishment was a Peach Bowl victory over Virginia Tech following the 1980 season. The Hurricanes entered the 1984 Orange Bowl with a 10-1 record, but were heavy underdogs.
Miami freshman quarterback Bernie Kosar had an up-and-down season with 15 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions. But a devastating Hurricanes defense allowed just 11.3 points per game, third in the nation. After the embarrassing loss to Florida, the Canes crushed Houston and shut out Purdue and No. 13 Notre Dame in back-to-back games. The Canes never gave up more than two touchdowns in a game for the rest of the regular season.
The Hurricanes had entered the season unranked, while Nebraska was No. 1 in the preseason. Miami drifted as high as fifth in the AP poll but seemed hopelessly stuck behind Texas, Auburn and Illinois for a shot at the title. When Texas lost to Georgia in the Cotton Bowl and Illinois fell to UCLA in the Rose Bowl, the window for Miami opened just a crack: Beat Nebraska and earn a shot at the first national title in school history.
The first quarter was a shock: Miami reeled off 17 unanswered points to seize control. Kosar threw a pair of touchdown passes, while Miami’s defense held Nebraska’s formidable offense in check. The Huskers stormed back with two rushing TDs in the second quarter, including a one-yard plunge by and a brilliant trick play -- a fumblerooski taken to the house by offensive lineman Dean Steinkuhler, who would become the second overall pick in the 1984 NFL Draft. At the half, the Canes led 17–14, but the momentum had shifted to Nebraska.
Nebraska tied the score early in the second half, but Miami regained control with rushing touchdowns by Alonzo Highsmith, the future No. 3 overall pick in the 1987 NFL Draft, and Albert Bentley. The fourth quarter began with Miami ahead 31–17. The Canes defense had not given up more than 17 points in any game since their opener and looked poised to shock the world.
With just under seven minutes remaining, Nebraska struck back on a one-yard run by Jeff Smith. Miami then missed a field goal with 1:47 left , which gave Nebraska life.
What came next is one of the most memorable drives in college football history.
Nebraska marched down the field but faced fourth-and-8 with under a minute remaining. Down by seven, the Huskers ran the option, and Gill pitched to running back Jeff Smith. Smith broke right and dashed for a 24-yard touchdown that would tie the game, pending an extra point.
This was before overtime was implemented in college football, which meant a tie was a real possibility -- especially with just 48 seconds remaining. For Nebraska, finishing with a 12-0-1 record may have been enough to keep the No. 1 AP ranking. But Osborne didn’t want to back in to a championship. “Football is a game, and you play games to win,” he said later.
So he made a crucial call: The Cornhuskers would go for the two-point conversion.
After taking the snap, Gill rolled to his right and fired a bullet to Smith. Miami safety Ken Calhoun stretched out and knocked the pass down, sealing a Miami victory and one of the biggest upsets in bowl game history.
The ramifications were massive. Miami leapt to No. 1 in the final AP poll, just ahead of No. 2 Nebraska and No. 3 Auburn, which had squeaked by Michigan in the Sugar Bowl. The controversy extends to this day, as Auburn claims a share of the 1983 national title and fans and analysts still question Osborne’s decision to go for two.
Miami’s Schnellenberger would make way for the brash Jimmy Johnson, who would begin to shape Miami’s cocky and controversial identity. The Canes would march to three more championships over the next eight seasons, and the program soon became a recruiting juggernaut and factory for NFL talent.
Miami and Nebraska would battle several more times over the next decade, each meeting with championships on the line. The city of Miami became a house of horrors for Osborne and Nebraska: The Hurricanes crushed Nebraska in the Orange Bowl in 1989 and 1992 seasons. Nebraska finally exorcised those demons by beating Miami in the 1994 Orange Bowl to win the national title.
That victory was a breakthrough for Osborne after years of frustration. Nebraska would capture the 1994, 1995, and 1997 national championships, one of the most dominant runs in recent college football history. But Miami came back yet again. The two programs met in 2002 in the Rose Bowl, and the Hurricanes clobbered the Huskers 37-14 to cap an undefeated season and their most recent national title.
Now 12 years later, both schools are in very different positions. Nebraska coach Bo Pelini has never faced the Hurricanes while with the Cornhuskers, but he’s notched at least nine wins each season since taking over in 2008. The Canes have been adrift for several seasons but climbed as high as No. 7 in 2013, their highest ranking under fourth-year coach Al Golden.
As for the overall series? In a slightly poetic twist, given that Osborne refused to play for a tie, Miami and Nebraska are tied at 5-5. Now that overtime exists, this game should break that deadlock.