Following Nebraska’s final regular-season game against Oklahoma in 1989, Tom Osborne said the Huskers still had a chance at a national championship, “but it’s slim,” he said.
“I just want to finish out the season, play well, and maybe someone will vote for us.”
Considering Nebraska was No. 6, dropping from No. 3 after its only loss against Colorado in early November, “slim” was generous. Also the Huskers were going to play No. 5 Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl, though there had been games to play when Osborne made the statement.
Nebraska had finished the regular season on Nov. 18.
In any case, the 1989 season had been like every other during the 1980s. At some point in each, except one, the Huskers had been ranked No. 3 or higher. And that one, 1981, they had climbed to No. 4 by season’s end and had they upset No. 1 Clemson in the Orange Bowl things fell such a way in other bowl games that they probably would have been voted national champions in at least one poll.
Even though Nebraska never broke through, it was always in the national conversation.
After the 42-25 Oklahoma victory Osborne also said he told his team that it had “come as close” to reaching its potential as any team he had coached.
“I’m really proud of this football team,” said Osborne.
Fast forward a month and a half to the Fiesta Bowl, which would prove to be an aberration given the previous context.
Bobby Bowden’s Seminoles had lost their first two games and then won nine in a row, including four against top-20 teams, among them No. 2 Miami at the end of October. They were led by senior quarterback Peter Tom Willis, who was from Morris, Alabama. He had passed for a school-record 3,124 yards and 20 touchdowns, with just nine interceptions, in his only season as a starter.
Willis had passed for 300 or more yards in six games.
Nebraska scored on its first possession, kept alive by a pass by punter Mike Stigge to Mark Dowse on 4th-and-5 at the Husker 36-yard line. The fake punt was planned, Osborne said. It gained 41 yards, plus Stigge was roughed, giving Nebraska first down at the Seminole 11-yard line.
Three plays later, Gerry Gdowski passed 9 yards to split end Morgan Gregory for a touchdown. Gregg Barrios kicked the extra-point and less than 4 minutes into the game, Nebraska led.
Florida State missed two field goals sandwiched around a Kent Wells’ tackle for a 1-yard gain on fourth-and-2 at the Husker 4-yard line before finally scoring early in the second quarter, following a play on which Gdowski was sacked and fumbled; the Seminoles recovered at the Nebraska 31.
Willis passed 17 yards and then 14 yards for a touchdown.
Nebraska would retake the lead on Chris Drennan’s 39-yard field goal a minute-and-a-half later, but the Huskers wouldn’t score again until 1:16 remained in the game, with Mickey Joseph at quarterback.
Florida State scored 34 unanswered points in the second and third quarters for a 41-17 victory, the most lopsided bowl in the Osborne era as well as the most lopsided since Bob Devaney’s team lost against Alabama 34-7 in the 1967 Sugar Bowl—tying for the Huskers’ most lopsided bowl loss ever.
Bill Glassford’s team lost against Duke in the 1955 Orange Bowl, also 34-7.
“I’m a little embarrassed . . . that disappointed me,” said Osborne.
Willis passed for a Fiesta Bowl record 422 yards. The previous record, 375 yards, was set by the Seminoles’ Danny McManus in the 1988 game—also against Nebraska.
Willis’s five touchdown passes tied a Fiesta Bowl record, which McManus shared, and his 414 yards of total offense—he lost 8 on a sack—were a Fiesta Bowl record.
And yes, McManus set the previous record of 404 against Nebraska.
In all, Willis broke or tied 15 bowl and team records.
Gdowski, who had such a remarkable regular season, threw two interceptions, equaling his total through 11 games, and had a rushing net of 1 yard. I-back Ken Clark carried 16 times for 86 yards.
The Huskers rushed for only 115 yards, after averaging a nation-leading 375.3 yards per game for the season. They had averaged 513.3 yards of offense to rank third nationally.
Nebraska was No. 11 in the final Associated Press poll.
“Florida State may be the best team in America,” Osborne said. “I can’t argue with that after we were beaten so badly today.”
The Seminoles were second in the final United Press International coaches’ poll but third in the AP poll behind Miami and Notre Dame, which had defeated No. 1 Colorado 21-6 in the Orange Bowl.
The Buffaloes finished at No. 4.
Mike is in his 40th year covering Husker athletics, after seven years of community-college teaching. He has written and edited a dozen books, all on Nebraska football except one, a brief history of Husker basketball. He previously wrote for the Lincoln Journal and Star and Huskers Illustrated. He enjoys music, from the Grateful Dead and Jack Johnson to Van Morrison, Bob Wills, Glenn Miller and pretty much anyone else.