The name of the game is, after all, football. Isn't it ironic then that the least-appreciated facet of the sport is the art of putting foot to leather? Those Heisman types run with it and throw it and catch it. But kick it? Perish the thought. Yet last Saturday, before a capacity crowd of 76,152 in Lincoln's Memorial Stadium, it was Florida State's two kickers, Rohn Stark and Bill Capece, who stole the show from Nebraska's Heisman candidate, Running Back Jarvis Redwine. When it was all over, the Seminoles had booted the Cornhuskers—who had come into the game with a No. 3 ranking—out of the unbeaten ranks, 18-14, and given a swift kick to Nebraska's dreams of a national championship.
Stark, a junior from Fifty Lakes, Minn. (pop.: 150), kept the Big Red offense bottled up all day long, with seven punts that averaged 48.4 yards. Only three were returned, and those for a grand total of two yards. Capece was at least as spectacular. Only one of his six kickoffs was returned—from five yards deep in the end zone to the 12. More important, he booted field goals of 32, 27, 40 and 41 yards without a miss to account for two-thirds of his team's points.
All week Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne had been telling anyone who would listen that the kicking game could play a crucial role against Florida State. He cited Stark's 46.2 average, third best in the nation, and the fact that Capece had made five of six field-goal attempts, the only miss being a 52-yarder. "Our kicking game," he added, "is just average." No one paid any attention, of course.
And why should anyone? In three games Nebraska had looked like the collegiate equivalent of the Steelers while crushing Utah, Iowa and Penn State by a combined score of 133-16. For a while last Saturday, the Cornhuskers looked as if they might do the same to the 3-1 Seminoles, who arrived in Lincoln as the 16th-ranked team in the nation. Florida State was undefeated in the regular season last year and lost only to Nebraska's Big Eight rival, Oklahoma, 24-7 in the Orange Bowl. After three impressive wins, the Seminoles were upset two weeks ago by Miami of Florida, 10-9, but in those four games their defense had allowed just one touchdown, which was largely the result of a 49-yard pass-interference penalty. Against that defense Nebraska marched 80 yards to a touchdown in the first quarter and 80 yards to another TD midway through the second for a 14-0 lead. Both scores came on passes from Quarterback Jeff Quinn to walk-on Split End Todd Brown.
Meanwhile, the Nebraska defense was blitzing the Seminoles silly. After 21 plays, Florida State's total yardage was minus seven. Near the end of the half, the Seminoles finally put together a drive that led to Capece's first field goal, the 32-yarder, but at 14-3 the game seemed to be no contest.
The first-half score would have been worse had it not been for Stark's booming punts, which outgained the Nebraska offense 235 yards to 208. Redwine, with 91 yards, was rolling to another big day. And from Columbus came word that UCLA had taken a 17-0 lead over No. 2-ranked Ohio State. For Cornhusker fans happy days were here again.
Then, all of a sudden, Nebraska began methodically giving the game away. On the Big Red's first possession of the second half, Cornhusker Punter Scott Gemar dropped a perfect snap. Florida State took over at the Nebraska 17-yard line, and four plays later Capece's 27-yarder made the score 14-6.
On Nebraska's next series, Quinn's pass for Craig Johnson on the right sideline was intercepted on the Florida State 45 by Free Safety Keith Jones. This time Florida State moved the ball. To neutralize the blitzing Cornhuskers, Quarterback Rick Stockstill began sprinting to the outside, where he had the option of throwing or running. He completed two passes for 18 yards and ran once for eight more as the Seminoles moved 47 yards for a touchdown, Tailback Sam Piatt going the final six, to make it 14-12. Coach Bobby Bowden called for a two-point play, but Stockstill's pass for Phil Williams was high.
No matter. Nebraska gave the ball right back. This time Redwine, running around the right end, fumbled at his 34-yard line. Florida State made one first down before stalling, and it was Capece time again. "When I go out on the field, I look at that goalpost and tell myself, 'That goalpost is mine,' " he says. "In this business you have to think positively all the time." He positively drilled this one from 40 yards out, and with 1:17 left in the third quarter Florida State led 15-14.
Capece, whose father, Vince, is a scout for the California Angels, went to high school with Miami Dolphin Coach Don Shula's son Dave and has spent the last five summers working on his kicking in the Dolphins' camp. Positive thinking was one of the lessons taught him by Garo Yepremian. At 5'7", 170 pounds, Capece isn't any bigger than Yepremian, but he has a powerful leg, as his kickoffs against Nebraska proved. Two days before the game he booted a 62-yard field goal in a live practice. After three seasons of backing up the Seminoles' career scoring leader, Davey Cappelen, Capece is determined to make a name for himself as a senior so he can get a chance to fulfill his dream of kicking in the pros. If nothing else, his name is not likely to be forgotten in Nebraska.
The Cornhuskers finally showed some life as the fourth quarter got under way. On Florida State's next possession the Big Red pushed the Seminoles all the way back to their own seven-yard line and Stark was brought on to punt into the wind. Nebraska seemed certain to get possession in Florida State territory. Stark usually holds the ball so that when he punts it the tips point diagonally toward the sidelines, thus getting more height, but against the wind he points one tip straight downfield and tries for a tight, driving spiral. He smacked this punt 58 yards, all the way to the Nebraska 35-yard line, and the Cornhuskers' Dave Liegl lost another yard trying to return it. Deflated, Nebraska failed to move the ball, and on the ensuing exchange of punts Stark pushed the Cornhuskers even farther back with a 46-yarder.
A 6'3" 195-pounder, Stark presents a sharp contrast to Capece, his constant companion on the practice field, roommate on the road and backup as punter. Stark is a decathlete for the Florida State track team, with a best performance of 7,083 points. He has high-jumped 6'10" and pole-vaulted 15'6" and may delay a pro football career to train for the 1984 Olympics. He is also a student pilot and has thought of following in the steps of his father, Donald, a TWA captain.
Later in the fourth quarter Stockstill got the roll-out working again and engineered a 56-yard drive that ended in Capece's 41-yarder. That made the score 18-14 with 2:37 to play and left Nebraska with one last chance. The Cornhuskers' desperate push to remain undefeated turned Memorial Stadium into a madhouse. In the middle of that drive Redwine banged up the middle for the last four of his 145 yards on the day and was himself banged up. Wobbling badly, he was helped off the field, not to return. (As it turned out, Redwine had a cracked rib and will be unable to play for two to three weeks.) Still, the Cornhuskers plowed on, reaching Florida State's three-yard line. There, on second down, with 17 seconds to play, Quinn rolled left, searching the end zone for a receiver. Linebacker Paul Piurowski, who had already made 11 individual tackles, charged. Quinn raised his arm to throw just as Piurowski grabbed him from behind by the collar of his shoulder pads, pulling him backward to the ground. The ball rolled free, stopping within inches of Quinn's outstretched fingertips. Held in Piurowski's grasp, he lay like a man in a nightmare, seeing the ball but unable to reach it. Florida State's Garry Futch covered the fumble and Nebraska'a last hope died.
Shortly, a disconsolate Quinn replayed those last agonizing seconds. "It would be nice to have that play back," he said. "I guess I blew a chance in a million."
And, maybe, a national championship.