Tom's Time
Photo Credit: Nebraska Athletics

Tom’s Time: Huskers Made it ‘Matter of Fact’ Against Florida in ’96 Fiesta Bowl

December 15, 2022

Offense wins games, defense wins championships.

That time-worn cliché, both parts, pretty much sums up the 1996 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, just as the first part of this sentence—every cliché is “time-worn,” for instance—could be picked apart the way Nebraska’s defense picked apart Florida’s “fun and gun” offense.

Yes, the Gators led at the end of the first quarter, 10-6. But the next time they scored, with 52 seconds remaining in the third quarter, Nebraska was ahead by 36 points, on the way to a 62-24 victory and a second consecutive national championship.

Offense, 62 points, wins games. But don’t disregard the second part.

Focus on Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel, the nation’s leading passer. For the season, he threw for 3,266 yards and 35 touchdowns, with 10 interceptions. Against Nebraska, he completed 17-of-31 passes for 255 yards and a touchdown. BUT, and all caps are appropriate, Wuerffel was sacked seven times, including one by Jamel Williams for a safety, and intercepted three times, including one returned 42 yards by Michael Booker for a touchdown.

Six Huskers had sacks, Terrell Farley with two. Tony Veland and Eric Stokes also intercepted passes. Farley led Nebraska with eight tackles. Phil Ellis had six.

Because of 40 yards in sack losses, the Gators finished with a net of minus-28 yards rushing and 269 yards of total offense, 35 fewer yards than Tommie Frazier.

The Husker quarterback, and Heisman Trophy runner-up, didn’t fare much better than Wuerffel, completing 6-of-14 for 105 yards and a touchdown, with two interceptions. But he rushed for a team-high 199 yards, including touchdown runs of 35 and 75 yards.

Husker fans chanted “Frazier, Frazier,” when the 75-yard run was replayed on the video screen. Tom Osborne said of Frazier, “there is still a place in college football for a running quarterback.”

Osborne added: “The option still has a place.”

That was reflected not only in the 62 points but also in 629 yards of total offense.

Lawrence Phillips, who got the start at I-back and carried 25 times, ran for 165 yards and two touchdowns, the second a 42-yarder, and caught the touchdown pass from Frazier. Ahman Green carried nine times for 68 yards and a touchdown, and Brook Berringer scored the other touchdown. Kris Brown kicked two field goals to complete the scoring.

“We were outmatched,” Florida Coach Steve Spurrier said over the loudspeaker at Sun Devil Stadium. “In order to beat Nebraska, got to be as strong as they are. We got clobbered.”

Even though the Huskers had taken control by halftime, leading 35-10, “we kept playing, they kept playing,” said Wuerffel, who had lived in Lincoln for a time—he attended every home game in 1983—and grown up a Nebraska fan.

Florida had rallied from a 30-14 halftime deficit against Tennessee to win 62-37. But that wasn’t going to happen against Nebraska’s defense.

Immediately after the game, Husker tight end Sheldon Jackson took a victory lap with a red flag with white N. Even so, “everybody wasn’t as emotional tonight as last year,” said Osborne, still drying off from a drenching when speaking post-game. “It wasn’t ho-hum, but more matter-of-fact.”

Osborne said he expected the game “to go down to the wire. The thing I was counting on was our defense . . . felt we had a little better defense than they’d seen.”

Defense wins championships.

And, he added, “probably a little better running game.”

Nebraska rushed for 524 yards, averaging 7.7 yards per carry, behind a starting offensive line that included double tight ends Mark Gilman and Tim Carpenter, tackles Chris Dishman and Eric Anderson, guards Aaron Taylor and Steve Ott, and All-America center Aaron Graham.

Offense wins games.

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