Tom Osborne went for two, as he said he would, even though an extra-point kick and a tie almost certainly would have meant a national championship.
But he played to win, as did those he coached.
“I would have felt just the same if we had tied,” guard Dean Steinkuhler, the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award winner, said of Nebraska’s 31-30 loss to Miami in the 1984 Orange Bowl.
“We came down here intent on winning.”
Husker fans know the painful particulars. A Nebraska team during the regular season that many had labeled the greatest in college football history, a team that had scored an NCAA-record 624 points and averaged 52 points per game, the “Scoring Explosion” team, came up just short.
After back-up I-back Jeff Smith ran 24 yards for his second touchdown in the fourth quarter, with 48 seconds remaining, a Turner Gill pass – “Triple Right 51 I-back Flat” – intended for Smith in the end zone was deflected by Miami safety Ken Calhoun off Smith’s shoulder pads.
Following the game, Osborne was asked why he had gone for two.
“We were trying to win the football game,” he said.
His players supported that.
“We didn’t get beat,” said offensive tackle Mark Behning. “We just lost.”
“I’m proud to be a Cornhusker,” defensive tackle Rob Stuckey said.
“If we were going to be champions, we had to go out like champions,” said cornerback Dave Burke. “Champions don’t go for the tie.”
Miami, its only loss at Florida (28-3) in the opener, was ranked fifth. But Nebraska, technically the host as the Big Eight champion, was facing more than the Hurricanes, playing on their home field.
Miami Coach Howard Schnellenberger, who arrived at the Orange Bowl for media day in a helicopter, massed the Miami area, encouraging the community to come to the stadium during the fourth quarter, if the score was close, to cheer on the Hurricanes and celebrate.
The news media in south Florida suspended its objectivity and supported the Hurricanes.
Orange Bowl officials openly rooted for Miami. And at the coaches luncheon, Nebraska’s captains weren’t seated at the head table while the Hurricane captains were.
Nebraska’s defense had shown vulnerability to the pass late in the season, allowing 346 yards to Iowa State and 320 yards to Kansas. Miami quarterback Bernie Kosar exploited that vulnerability, completing 19-of-35 passes for 300 yards and two touchdowns, with one interception.
In an attempt to confuse the redshirt freshman’s reads, Burke and monster Mike McCashland switched jersey numbers. Burke wore No. 2 and McCashland No. 33. Nebraska notified the officials beforehand. During warm-ups, Mike Rozier and Irving Fryar jokingly traded jerseys, as well.
Given the stats, and Kosar’s comments afterward, the deception didn’t work.
Miami dominated the first and third quarters, outscoring the Huskers 17-0 and 14-3, though a Smith fumble at the Miami 2-yard line contributed to the third-quarter disparity.
Nebraska, which fumbled five other times (though none were lost), outscored the Hurricanes 14-0 and 13-0 in the second and fourth quarters, respectively.
Steinkuhler scored Nebraska’s first touchdown on the fumbleroosky, a 19-yard run.
Rozier rushed for 147 yards on 26 carries, but left the game late in the third quarter with an ankle injury. Gill completed 16-of-30 passes for 172 yards, with one interception, and scored the other touchdown from 1 yard out with 2:17 remaining in the first half.
A Miami Herald survey of Associated Press poll voters indicated that 54 of the 60 would make Miami No. 1 with a victory over Nebraska in conjunction with a Georgia upset of No. 2 and 11-0 Texas in the Cotton Bowl. The No. 7 Bulldogs won 10-9, allowing Miami to leapfrog No. 3 Auburn as well, even though the once-beaten Tigers defeated No. 8 Michigan in the Sugar Bowl 9-7.
No. 4 Illinois lost to unranked UCLA 45-9 in the Rose Bowl.
The Huskers, of course, would finish No. 2.
Osborne’s decision to go for two was applauded by several national sports writers, including George Vecsey of the New York Times, who wrote: “Osborne showed that he and his team and his college and his state loved winning so much that they would take the chance of losing.”
Steinkuhler expressed an attitude reflective of what Scott Frost is now trying to instill in his program. “We hung together when the situations were tight,” Steinkuhler said. “We never gave up on each other, and we still don’t . . . we learned to be winners and hopefully, we’ll take that lesson with us.”
“I don’t think I could have gone in the locker room and looked at those players with the idea we didn’t try to win . . . I think it was the right thing to do,” Osborne said.
“There’s no question in my mind that if we had to do it over again . . . we would do the same thing.”
Ken Denlinger of the Washington Post wrote: “The Cornhuskers cost themselves the national championship but won something more worthy: a nation’s admiration.”
Tom's Time is a regular feature that will take a closer look at the life of Tom Osborne. Nebraska has a storied history in football that dates back to the earliest years of the game, but the tradition to which Husker fans hold Nebraska is mostly a reference to Osborne's 25 years as head coach. And that will always be worth exploring in greater detail. Click here for all of the entries in the series.