A New Year’s Classic

(I’m filing this quickly as I couldn’t pass it up. I’m supposed to be on the way to my MIL’s house and I’m getting withering glares from The Missus. All typos are mine. Feel free to correct or castigate me as I deserve it…)

“This is for the National Championship for Nebraska…”

If you’ve got two or three hours today, flip to ESPN Classic for one of the best bowl games we’ve seen in the past quarter century. The Big Ticket is showing the 1984 Orange Bowl featuring Nebraska and Miami for the whole ball of wax. In the history of college football, no team had ever been as powerful as Nebraska’s 1983-84 team. The squad averaged 52 points a game, never really was challenged throughout the year and had Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier at running back. At the controls was Turner Gill, who finished fourth in the Heisman voting that year. He was throwing to future NFL end Irving Fryar and the offensive line had guard Dean Steinkulher, who won the Outland Trophy that year for best offensive lineman.

The juggernaut was opposed by a Miami team that got cuffed around by Florida early in the year and then hung on in a series of games that pushed them to a 12-1 record. Their quarterback was a freshman, their defense was suspect and the only advantage they had was they were playing in their home stadium. And yet at the end of the first quarter, Miami QB Bernie Kosar had led the Hurricanes on three scoring drives and to a 17-0 lead.

“And the shock continues…”

Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne, desperate for his first national championship, stuck to the plan. Like a dentist administering Novocain, he hit the Hurricanes with dose after dose of his running game. Rozier racked up 147 yards on 25 carries, but the most famous carry came courtesy of Steinkuhler who scored on 19-yard run via the “fumblerooski” play. Gill took the snap, intentionally fumbled the ball to Steinkuhler who then ran for the score.

“And he’d down…”

Trailing late by 7, Nebraska lost Rozier to an injury. Gill’s air attack suffered without the threat of the run. Years later, Osborne would explain that his home field in Nebraska had been coated by about a three-inch sheet of ice, making it almost impossible to work on pass plays and pass defense. Still, when Fryar dropped a sure TD and Gill fumbled the ball late in the final drive, Nebraska looked cooked.

“Look at this play! Jeff Smith!”

The unheralded back up to Rozier, Jeff Smith, took matters into his own hands. On a 4th-and-8 with less than a minute to go, Gill ran a right-side option, was almost flattened and flailed away with the ball, flipping it to Smith. The running back ran wide to the sideline, cut up and lunged into the end zone. The score stood at 31-30.

“What is he doing? I have not seen the kicker come on the field and I don’t think he’s coming on the field…”

In 1984, college games had no overtime. A tie would likely give Osborne a championship, but there were no guarantees. He had a choice to make. With his star running back out, his kicker rattled (an early field goal attempt had been blocked and the Huskers had only attempted four field goals all season; the PAT was no gimme) and no sense as to what the voters would say, he decided to go for two points. One play from the two-yard line for all the marbles.

The play started with Gill rolling to the right after a play fake to the left. The defense bit on the fake and Gill spotted Smith all alone in the back of the end zone. A short pass headed his way and a title seemed assured.

With desperate times come desperate measures. Safety Ken Calhoun ran back toward Smith and appeared to be far short of his goal of breaking up the pass. He lunged at the last possible moment just as the ball began to descend into Smith’s waiting arms. Calhoun’s middle finger grazed the underside of the ball, sending it into an oblong arc. Smith frantically tried to readjust, but the ball bounced off his shoulder pads and caromed away and hit the turf.

Miami had become national champions. For the Huskers, it was of little consolation they were a mere inch away from perfection.

One day after the 25th anniversary of this game, Turner Gill will lead his University of Buffalo team into the International Bowl. The Bulls will be playing in their first bowl game ever (they were once invited to a bowl in the 1950s but declined the invitation because they were asked to leave their black players at home).

I hope if the chance comes during the game, Gill decides to go for two.

He can take comfort in knowing Ken Calhoun will be nowhere around.

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