Photo Credit: Nebraska Athletics

Competition, Toughness, Excellence: Nebraska’s ’97 National Title, 25 Years Later

January 02, 2023

It’s always been that damned Missouri game. Miracle In Missouri? More like the smudge on the record.

With 62 seconds and no timeouts left, the Huskers offense took the field at its own 33-yard line. The game and a potential national championship hung in the balance. In a documentary made about the season, quarterback Scott Frost described himself as calm. No one expected them to score so he felt no pressure at all.

Dr. Tom Osborne still remembers the drive. Frost to Kenny Cheatham over the middle. Frost to freshman Matt Davison. Another pass to Davison the Hall of Fame coach believes the officials missed a pass interference call on. Then Frost to Cheatham again, down to the Missouri 12.

Down by 7, with 7 seconds left, that’s where Frost looked over his progressions with plenty of time. On his third read he threw over the middle. It was meant for Shevin Wiggins but when he couldn’t haul it in with a defender on his back he flicked his right foot. Like an aberration, the spirit of an inevitable title, Davison famously dove under it.

But it wasn’t fate that put Davison in that position. Osborne remembered it was a play with two receivers on each side running slants. By nature, all the receivers converged. It might have been, however, football karma correcting the record.

“We’d had some kind of unlucky bounces in a couple of other national championship games earlier like the 1984 Orange Bowl and the 1994 Orange Bowl we missed a field goal at the end,” Osborne explained this fall. “But I’d say at that point things might have evened out a little bit. We had a little bad luck but that was a very fortunate play.”

Frost thought it fell incomplete until Davison ran across the field and the far official raised his arms. Missouri fans thought the game was over until security pushed them off the field and back into the stands. That touchdown sent Nebraska into its first overtime game in program history. Not until the Huskers dominated the extra frame could they finally exhale.

“Real fine effort, good job of maintaining your poise, and I know you can learn a lot from a game like this, and I’m very grateful we were able to pull it out,” coach Tom Osborne told his players in the locker room after. “Obviously there’s some things we need to do better but the main thing is we hung in there, didn’t give up, pulled together and let’s finish it out.”

That’s exactly what the Huskers did. Fans remember the final three games finishing in absolute dominating fashion and Nebraska earned a share of the national championship. Osborne still points to that Missouri game as the reason the AP poll didn’t rate Nebraska No. 1 again and forced the Huskers to split the crown with Michigan. It’s been 25 years since that national championship season. It’s the last time Nebraska’s won it all. The gap between then and now is the largest of any between national championships since Nebraska started winning them in the 1970s. While college football has changed in the quarter of a century since the last national championship, the game’s core characteristics remain the same. Competition, toughness, excellence. The traits that keep Nebraska coaches claiming sole possession of the national title 25 years later.

“They left no doubt who the best team on the field was,” Hall of Fame strength coach Boyd Epley said.

Like most dynasties, Nebraska’s 90s dominance originated from shortcomings.

Tom Osborne inherited the kingdom and its lofty expectations when Bob Devaney finally retired. Devaney came from Wyoming and built unprecedented success, walking away after missing out on a third straight National Championship. The offensive coordinator took over and Nebraska reached the top 3 in the rankings at least once during 18 of his first 21 seasons as head coach.

History shows Nebraska as the bridesmaid of the time. First there was the 1975 season that ended with consecutive losses. Nebraska was ranked second before two straight losses to end the 1978 season. The 1979 season started undefeated but ended with consecutive 17-14 losses.

Osborne tried to win the 1984 Orange Bowl and the national championship only for Miami’s Kenny Calhoun to knock down Turner Gill’s two-point conversion throw. The 17-7 loss to Oklahoma the next year ended Nebraska’s title hopes as the top-ranked team. The 1988 Fiesta Bowl loss to Florida State with the title on the line started a streak of seven straight bowl losses.

Osborne couldn’t win the big one. Not meant for the top of the podium. That’s what they said.

So, the program underwent some changes.

Boyd Epley presents lifting awards during a football game at Memorial Stadium in 2019. (Photo by John S. Peterson/Hail Varsity)

Epley gathered the Huskers together ahead of the 1991 season and told them they’d come to workouts “or be done.” It was Osborne’s idea to grant an absence or two. This resulted in the departure of the team’s starting fullback and starting linebacker.

“But we got back a football team that was so dedicated that the linemen had 15,000 workouts and one absence,” Epley said. When the team’s focused wavered in the winter, coaches brainstormed ways to regain it. Epley used a recent trip to renew his license to scrawl the point system. Three-point accumulation led to a personal meeting with Osborne but because he wasn’t seen as “the kind of guy that would chew your ass,” Epley said, it didn’t work as well as he’d hoped.

So, they created the unity council. Then Epley received a call from Dr. Bill Kraemer about the “metabolic circuit.” Players developed accountability to constantly attend workouts and coaches developed the optimal workout.

That set it all in motion. Nebraska exorcised its demons in 1994 and beat Miami with 17-unanswered second-half points, including the winning 14-yard Cory Schlesinger score with under 3 minutes remaining, to complete the undefeated season and win the national championship. Then came the utter domination of the 1995 title game. Those around in 1996 bemoaned the shutout loss to Arizona State. It’s still the last time the Huskers have been shutout. Any who returned for 1997 pledged they’d avenge that loss, and the Big 12 Championship loss, the following year.

Former Nebraska defensive coordinator Charlie McBride visited his friends at Tennessee multiple times over the years. His 1997 visit with Phil Fulmer and the Tennessee staff got cut a day short. McBride left his notebook — the defensive playbook — with Fulmer. That didn’t bother McBride in a lot of ways. He even came to forget about it until the night before the 1998 Orange Bowl, culminating the 1997 season. Fulmer saw McBride and gave the notebook back while apologizing.

“They knew our defense, they knew what we were doing,” McBride remembered. “But they didn’t know when we were going to do it. That’s probably the trick to the whole thing.”

That’s what he goes back to year after year. The dominant season that included a long-awaited break started and ended with the players. Coaches prepared them as best they could but it’s up to the Huskers to play the game. And that group of Huskers always found a way to win because of the work they put in during the off-season, McBride said. He credited the weights, conditioning and drill work for getting the team ready in the 1997 season. They were hungry and bonded by the same goal. They wanted a title again.

“Some of the bowl teams, that includes 1997, you almost have a leader at each position,” McBride said. “There’s several guys and that really makes you a better football team.”

Nebraska’s football coaching staff in 1997. Courtesy Nebraska Athletics.

Nebraska’s championship campaign started with a 59-14 home win over Akron. Fans waited two weeks to see the Huskers trail UCF at halftime. Nebraska struggled to contain the arm of young quarterback Daunte Culpepper until the second half and two touchdown runs from Correll Buckhalter spurred Nebraska’s win. The struggle dropped Nebraska from No. 6 to No. 7 in the polls but an explosive, convincing 27-14 win against No. 2 Washington in Seattle the following week catapulted the Huskers to No. 3 in the voters’ minds.

“UCF had a lot more talent than people probably realized,” Osborne said.

A 30-point win over No. 17 Kansas State and a 28-point road victory against Baylor were enough to jump Nebraska to No. 2. That brought a shutout of Texas Tech. Voters rewarded Nebraska’s dominance with the No. 1 ranking. The Huskers tipped their cap to the voters with a 35-0 road shutout of Kansas and a 69-7 stomping of rival Oklahoma in Memorial Stadium.

“I thought (the Huskers) had a lot of tenacity and really hung in there and played well throughout the year,” Osborne said. “Probably the low point for me was the Missouri game. We had some turnovers and didn’t defend as well as we normally did, our pass defense was usually good. They hurt us with some play-action passes. Fortunately we were able to pull out of it.”

Missouri quarterback Corby Jones tallied 298 yards of total offense and four touchdowns in that game. He laid the groundwork in the first quarter but two second-quarter touchdown passes gave the Tigers a lead into the break and belief in the upset. He answered a touchdown run from Scott Frost to put the Tigers back up late in the third quarter. Then came the 15-yard pass to Eddie Brooks with 4:39 remaining. Jones led wins over Colorado, Oklahoma State and Texas, the last of which brought a field storming and new goal posts. Fans clamored to the aisles ready to do it all over again as Nebraska got the ball back. Some even ran onto the field as Davison ran towards midfield with the ball and the clock reading 0:00. Those sulked home in disbelief when Nebraska stopped Jones and Frost dove into the end zone for the winning touchdown.

In addition to the yardage given up, Osborne regretted the uncharacteristic turnovers. Frost threw two interceptions and the Huskers even coughed up a fumble. But with the statistical advantage in nearly every other facet and decades of bad luck, the scales of football justice leveled out for Dr. Osborne.

Voters used that game to drop Nebraska to No. 3 in the polls. That wasn’t the performance fitting of a national champion. Nebraska moved up to No. 2 the following week by beating Iowa State 77-14. They remained at No. 2 after surviving a fourth-quarter charge from rival Colorado. An absolute demolition of Texas A&M, 54-15, in the Big 12 Championship punched Nebraska’s ticket into the Orange Bowl for a date with Peyton Manning and Tennessee. McBride could get his playbook back.

“Those last three or four games I’d have to say were probably challenging,” Osborne said, “but we played well.”

Tennessee held the upper hand in an early statement until Ralph Brown’s hit on Jamal Lewis to knock the ball loose and Mike Rucker jumped on it. Within 8 real-time minutes, Ahman Green leaped over the goal line for the opening touchdown. Peyton Manning’s pass on the last play of the initial quarter went through his receiver’s hands into Eric Warfield’s. Nebraska marched the field and Wiggins broke a tackle to score a second Husker touchdown. Tennessee scraped together a field goal before halftime but the Huskers immediately marched down the field to start the third quarter and expand their lead on a Frost keeper. Rucker sacked Manning to force a 3-and-out and the Huskers churned into the end zone once more. The future Hall of Fame quarterback scored a necessary touchdown pass to keep the Volunteers alive only for Green to answer untouched on an option pitch. The rest was history.

Nebraska’s offense gained 534 total yards, including 409 on the ground. Green led the game with 26. Manning came into the Nebraska locker room after the game and congratulated the Huskers.

Not everyone was convinced by Nebraska’s dominance. For younger readers unfamiliar, at the time there was no definitive championship game. National champions were determined by a coaches poll and a media poll. The coaches’ poll voted Nebraska No. 1 after the season. The Associated Press media poll, however, favored undefeated Michigan.

“Got a stray puppy? Send it along to the 32 coaches who voted Nebraska No. 1 in Saturday’s final coaches’ poll,” Los Angeles Times writer Chris Dufresne wrote. “Those mush-hearts couldn’t refuse it.”

Members of the 1997 team were honored on the field before Nebraska played Wisconsin October 7, 2017. Photo by Eric Francis

Nebraska and Michigan shared claim to the national championship and a nation stirred. There could be only one champion. This created the Bowl Championship Series National Championship Game, pitting the top two ranked teams against each other for a definitive champion. The BCS rankings utilized the media poll, coaches’ poll, former players and coaches input, and six computer rankings to determine participants in the title game.

Epley remembered both Michigan and Nebraska visiting the White House to celebrate their shared title. Then-President Bill Clinton joked that he was the only one in the country who could bring them together. McBride said the players got along great during the trip. But they couldn’t help think what could have been if a culminating game took place.

“Do I think we would have beat Michigan?” Epley pondered. “Yes.”

Osborne added: “I think I would agree with you there,  but I’m a little biased.”

Epley and Nebraska pulled one back on Michigan a decade later. Epley hosted young strength coach Josh Robertson as he was getting his footing in college football. Robertson marveled at Nebraska’s strength and conditioning program. He saw what Nebraska did — 5-second bursts with 50-second rests — and took his findings back to Boone, North Carolina. He was in his second year at Appalachian State and the season opener at Michigan Stadium was around the corner.

“Appalachian State knew what we did,” Epley said. “They studied what we did.”

Appalachian State led Michigan 28-17 at halftime on September 1, 2007. The Wolverines came back but the Mountaineers drove 69 yards in just over a minute to set up a 24-yard field goal with 26 seconds left to retake the lead, 34-32. Michigan scrambled for a 37-yard game-winning field goal but the Mountaineers blocked it. Upset secured. News of the upset spread to Lincoln and the final score was announced at Memorial Stadium during Nebraska’s 52-10 drubbing of Nevada.

Coincidentally, that was the first game broadcast on the new Big Ten Network. A television constantly plays it inside conference headquarters. So, while Nebraska’s fortunes have turned since becoming conference foes with Michigan in 2011, there’s an ever-burning flame in the heart of the conference fueled by Nebraska’s past.

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