The losses are best measured not in points, but in feet and
inches. Ten more feet to the right on Byron Bennett's 45-yard field
goal attempt as time expired on New Year's Day in 1994 and Tom
Osborne would have shed his image as ''Ahab in search of Moby Dick,''
as he put it. Six fewer inches to the left on Turner Gill's two-point
conversion fling to Jeff Smith in 1984 and Gill would never have had
to stand in the north end zone of the Orange Bowl explaining to the
gaggle of reporters how the national title had slipped away again.
Before Jan. 1, 1995, Nebraska football history was pocked with
near misses. Four times in the last 30 seasons, three times in the
last 15, a Nebraska win in the Orange Bowl would have assured the
school a national title. Each time, the Huskers walked off on the
short end of a close call -- even though they kept it interesting
until last call, losing the four games by an average of five points.
A review of the blotter:
JAN. 1, 1966
ALABAMA 39, NEBRASKA 28
New Year's Day disappointment did not begin with Osborne. Ranked
third at the end of the regular season, the Bob Devaney-coached
Huskers suddenly found themselves in position to win the national
crown when No. 2 Arkansas lost to LSU in the Cotton Bowl that
afternoon and top-ranked Michigan State fell to UCLA in the Rose Bowl
minutes before the start of the Orange Bowl.
With the cosmos aligned just so, Nebraska went out and played its
worst half of the season against the No. 4-ranked Crimson Tide, which
entered the game with a loss and a tie. Behind the passing of Steve
Sloan, the Joe Namath heir who had been proclaimed by 'Bama coach
Bear Bryant as the most accurate quarterback in school history, the
Tide rolled to a 24-7 halftime lead. Sloan would finish the game with
20 completions in 29 attempts for 296 yards and two touchdowns.
Five years later, Nebraska would win the first of back-to-back
national titles, easing the pain of this near miss in the memory of
the faithful. More egregious would be the three to follow.
JAN. 1, 1982
CLEMSON 22, NEBRASKA 15
Only a season of nationwide mediocrity had conspired to land the
Cornhuskers in position to win the national championship when they
faced the Tigers. After starting the season with losses in two of
its first three games, Nebraska rebounded to win its last eight
regular-season games and jump to a No. 4 ranking. And as they sat in
their Miami hotel rooms preparing to face No. 1- ranked Clemson on
New Year's night, the Cornhuskers watched No. 3 Alabama fall to Texas
in the Cotton Bowl. When Pitt defeated second-ranked Georgia in the
Sugar Bowl that evening, the national title race became, as it had 16
years before, a two-horse affair between the Orange Bowl
Not that Clemson coach Danny Ford saw it that way. Said Ford:
''From what I had been hearing and reading, I figured there were more
ways for us to prove we didn't belong on the same field with Nebraska
than to prove that they didn't belong on the field with us.''
It was a piece of one-downsmanship that proved to be wholly
unfounded. By the start of the fourth quarter, Clemson held a
commanding 22-7 lead. It was at that point that the Georgia loss
flashed onto the Orange Bowl scoreboard. With a renewed sense of
urgency, Nebraska put together a 69-yard drive that was capped by
Roger Craig's 26-yard run around left end. Craig again ran it in
around left end for the two-point conversion to bring Nebraska within
a touchdown. But the Cornhuskers would get only two more chances to
score, a three-and-out series midway through the quarter and one Hail
Mary as time expired.
JAN. 2, 1984
MIAMI 31, NEBRASKA 30
The Huskers marched into Miami a team that had won 22 consecutive
games and gone down to the wire in the national championship hunt in
each of the previous two seasons. As such, they seemed poised to
claim the mantle as college football's Team of the '80s. Compared
with the stereotype of the Huskers as a group of corn-fed behemoths,
this Osborne team was a relative high-wire act. The offensive
backfield boasted Mike Rozier, who three weeks earlier had won the
Heisman Trophy; Irving Fryar, who three months later would be the
first pick in the NFL draft; and Gill, the catalyst of an offense
that had averaged 52 points and 546.7 yards a game during the regular
And who would have expected Miami to become the team of the
decade? It had been only five years since coach Howard
Schnellenberger began reviving a program that had known but two
winning seasons in the 10 years before his arrival. Building his team
around a fast, blitzing defense and a pass- oriented, pro-style
offense, he planted the seeds for a program against ; which all
others would measure themselves for the next 10 years. But on this
day, the Hurricanes were 11-point underdogs. Not that Schnellenberger
cared a whit, saying of his players, ''They're about to face the
Russian army, and they don't care. They think they're going to win.
And I'm the silly bastard who has everybody around here thinking they
Indeed, Nebraska would prove ill-prepared to defend against
Miami's damn- the-torpedoes offense, led by freshman quarterback
Bernie Kosar. Throughout the night the swift, cocksure Hurricanes
shredded a Nebraska defense that had finished 73rd in the nation in
total defense and whose players suddenly seemed as mobile as
Stonehenge pillars. ''Weight only works against you if it's leaning
on you,'' said Schnellenberger. ''If it has to stop and figure out
where to lean, it's not a factor.''
Superior talent alone kept Nebraska in the game. Trailing 31-17
with less than 12 minutes left to play, the Huskers drove 76 yards to
cut the deficit in half. And after getting the ball back with 1:47
left, they put together their first easy drive of the night, moving
74 yards in 59 seconds to close the gap to 31-30.
There was no question what to do. Before that final drive it had
been understood -- on both sidelines -- that Nebraska would go for
the win, even though a tie would have secured the Cornhuskers a
national title. ''I knew they'd go for two,'' said Miami roverback
Kenny Calhoun afterward. ''They're champions. They had to.'' And so
in the last decade, while fans and media have argued over Osborne's
decision not to settle for the tie, one thing is beyond dispute: It
was the Hurricanes who walked off with the dynasty.
JAN. 1, 1994
FLORIDA STATE 18, NEBRASKA 16
The hard lessons of four straight Orange Bowl spankings at the
hands of Miami and Florida State had left an indelible impression on
Osborne. After the Huskers' 23-3 loss to Miami in the 1989 Orange
Bowl, Osborne began to make a push for the fleet defensive players he
had theretofore overlooked. The result? While the Nebraska teams of
Craig, Rozier, Gill and Fryar had been more top-heavy with talent,
the 1993 team may have been Osborne's most skillfully assembled. But
only against something other than the squirt-gun offenses of the Big
Eight could Osborne's defensive handiwork be truly appreciated.
As the second-ranked offensive team in the country, Florida State
offered just the right test -- and was favored over the Huskers by 17
1/2 points. That night, the Nebraska defense, led by linebacker
Trev Alberts, sacked Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward five times.
Furthermore, even in losing, Osborne dispelled the notion that he was
a big-game gagmeister. Afterward, Florida State coach Bobby Bowden
flatly said, ''Tom did a better job than I did.'' At no moment had
that analysis proved more correct than in the last minute of the
game, with the Seminoles trailing 16-15. After Florida State wideout
Kez McCorvey drew an interference penalty that put the ball on the
Nebraska three- yard line, the Seminoles ran one more play before
calling timeout -- with 24 seconds left on the clock.
Scott Bentley made the 22-yard field goal to give Florida State
the lead, but enough time remained for Nebraska to drive the ball
down to the Seminole 28 as the clock expired. However, as the
Seminoles doused a jubilant Bowden with Gatorade and then pranced
around the field in their national championship hats and T-shirts,
the officials ruled that Husker tight end Trumane Bell had touched a
knee to the ground with one second left, allowing Nebraska to call
time -- and attempt a field goal. To Bowden's great relief and
Osborne's ongoing frustration, Bennett's kick sailed left.
No longer compelled to fend off questions about his coaching
acumen in big games, Osborne allowed himself a subtle dig at his
detractors when he said, ''I don't know if anybody eats crow these
days. They just conveniently forget what they said.''
Left unsaid, though, was the still unresolved matter of Moby Dick.
That conquest would have to wait another year.
This is an article from the Jan. 17, 1995 issue