Tom's Time
Photo Credit: Nebraska Athletics

Tom’s Time: The Nearest of Misses in the ’94 Orange Bowl

December 10, 2020

Nebraska fans might have imagined comedian Rodney Dangerfield’s voice in the background commotion following the 1994 Orange Bowl loss to Florida State.

“I can’t get no respect.”

The Huskers lost, of course, when Byron Bennett’s 45-yard field goal went wide left as the final second clicked off the clock. The final score was 18-16.

Afterward, Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden said Nebraska had been a better team than he expected. But he also said he thought Notre Dame should be No. 2 to his Seminoles in the final rankings, despite Nebraska’s coming within the missed field goal of winning.

He was just looking out for the interests of his own team, Bowden explained.

Notre Dame Coach Lou Holtz was lobbying in the media for his team as national champion. The Irish had defeated Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl, 24-21, and had handed Florida State its only loss, 31-24.

But the Irish had lost, at home, to Boston College 41-39 in their final regular-season game.

As a result, the final regular-season Associated Press rankings had Florida State No. 1, undefeated and untied Nebraska No. 2, undefeated and untied West Virginia No. 3 and Notre Dame No. 4.

No. 8 Florida embarrassed West Virginia in the Sugar Bowl, 41-7, to eliminate the Mountaineers from discussion of the final top-three rankings.

Holtz’s head-to-head comparison was reasonable enough, though there was the matter of the Boston College loss, plus justifying Nebraska’s dropping from No. 2 despite pushing Florida State to the limit, and despite at least two questionable calls by the Big East officiating crew.

The first was a block-in-the-back penalty that nullified a 71-yard punt return for a touchdown by Corey Dixon in the first quarter. Replay by NBC television seemed to show a phantom block.

The second involved Florida State’s lone touchdown by William Floyd from 1 yard out, early in the third quarter. A reverse-angle replay seemed to show that Floyd lost control of the ball before breaking the plane of the goal. Husker linebacker Mike Anderson recovered the ball.

Touchdown plays could not be reviewed back then, of course.

After the game, NBC’s Dick Enberg said the officials’ calls would give Nebraska fans something to “chew on” during the off-season. You can find the plays on YouTube and be the judge.

In any case, a successful field goal by Bennett would have eliminated any controversy and given  Nebraska, a 17½-point underdog, Tom Osborne’s first national championship.

That’s right, 17½ points, despite the Huskers’ being ranked No. 1 in both the Coaches and Bowl Coalition polls at the end of the regular season.

Bennett didn’t dodge reporters afterward.

“I just hooked it,” the senior from Rowlett, Texas, said of the final kick. “I think I felt penetration and adjusted my kick. You wait all your life for a chance to kick the winning field goal and it just didn’t happen. I think maybe God has something better for me in life.”

Nebraska took a 16-15 lead when Bennett, who had been 0-for-3 on field-goal attempts in bowls going into the game, kicked a 27-yarder with 1:16 remaining.

Lawrence Phillips had run 12 yards for a touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter to cap a seven-play, 73-yard drive. But Tommie Frazier was knocked out of bounds at the 1-yard line on a two-point conversion attempt to leave the score 15-13 Florida State.

The Seminoles responded to Bennett’s field goal by driving 60 yards on eight plays, aided by a pair of 15-yard penalties. On first-and-goal at the Nebraska 3-yard line, the Seminoles lost 2 yards and called timeout with 24 seconds remaining. Scott Bentley, who had missed a 47-yarder before kicking field goals of 34, 25 and 39 yards, came on to kick a 22-yarder for the 18-16 lead—21 seconds remained.

Barron Miles returned the kickoff 23 yards to the Nebraska 43. On first down, a Frazier pass intended for Trumane Bell was incomplete. On second down, Frazier and Bell hooked up for 29 yards to the Florida State 28-yard line. Frazier immediately signaled timeout.

Seminole players and fans rushed the field.

Enberg said the clock hadn’t expired. The officials cleared the field and put 1 second back on.

“We won it twice,” said Bowden, who apparently didn’t agree with the added second. “We’ve lost national championships, we thought, by missing kicks.

“Tonight, we won a national championship by making a kick.”

Or by Nebraska’s missing a kick.

I-back Calvin Jones, the Huskers’ leading rusher, didn’t play in the second half because of a banged-up shoulder.

Outside linebacker Trev Alberts, a consensus All-American and the Butkus Award Winner playing with an elbow problem that sidelined him all but the first nine plays of the Oklahoma game, sacked Florida State quarterback Charlie Ward three times, a statistic that wasn’t included in his official season (15) and career (29.5) totals, both school records.

Ward was named game MVP, Frazier Nebraska’s MVP. The sophomore quarterback was the game’s leading rusher, with 77 yards on 14 carries and completed 13-of-24 passes for 206 yards and one touchdown, with two interceptions.

The touchdown was a 34-yarder to Reggie Baul. With Bennett’s extra-point kick, the Huskers took a 7-3 lead with 5:59 remaining in the first half.

“The main thing is playing like champions; they did that,” Osborne said of his team. And “there may be folks somewhere who say, ‘Yeah, they’ve got one loss, but Florida State does, too.’”

So maybe “someone will vote us national champions,” he said.

“Who knows what people will do?”

No one voted for the Huskers in the final AP poll. They were third, behind Florida State and Notre Dame, which received 12 first-place votes.

The Huskers couldn’t get no respect.

Auburn could, sort of. It received one first-place vote and finished fourth. Terry Bowden’s Tigers were undefeated and untied but on NCAA probation and hadn’t played in a bowl.

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