Photo by Randy Hampton
Nebraska Football

Tom's Time: Heartaches by the Number in the 1989 Orange Bowl

November 7, 2019
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I’ve got heartaches by the number
Troubles by the score . . .
 

Those opening lines from a Ray Price song pretty much summarize Nebraska’s experience in the 1989 Orange Bowl against Miami, which had stopped the “Scoring Explosion” Huskers from completing a wire-to-wire national championship run in the 1984 Orange Bowl.

No national title was at stake for the Huskers, or for No. 2 Miami, on this night in the Hurricanes’ home stadium. Top-ranked and unbeaten Notre Dame, which had handed Miami its only loss (31-30) at mid-season, defeated No. 3 West Virginia in the Citrus Bowl (34-21) earlier in the day.

Still, Tom Osborne expected a better performance by his sixth-ranked team.

“Better” is an understatement in describing the Huskers, particularly on offense. And here’s where Price’s images fit so well. “Troubles,” for example; Nebraska had them by the “score.”

The Huskers led the nation in rushing, no surprise there, averaging 382.3 yards per game, and they ranked sixth in scoring, averaging 39.5 points per game—382.3 yards and 39.5 points.

Compare those to what they managed against Miami, which had the nation’s third-ranked rushing defense (82.3 ypg) and second-ranked scoring defense (10.3 ppg).

Nebraska rushed for 80 yards net and scored three points. Gregg Barrios kicked a 50-yard field goal with 9:06 remaining in the third quarter, after the Hurricanes had jumped to a 20-0 first half lead. The field goal was set up by a Tahaun Lewis pass interception and 31-yard return.

Charles Fryar, NBC’s Husker “player of the game,” also intercepted two Steve Walsh passes. But before you read too much into three interceptions against the junior All-America quarterback, consider that Walsh also completed 21-of-44 passes for 277 yards and two touchdowns.

Nebraska hadn’t been held to as few as three points in a game since the 1978 opener against Alabama in Birmingham (20-3), 135 games, and the Husker’ 135 yards of total offense were the fewest in the Bob Devaney-Tom Osborne era, which began in 1962, 27 seasons.

I-back Ken Clark, the nation’s fifth-leading rusher, was held to 36 yards on 14 carries, while quarterback Steve Taylor was under constant and withering pressure. He rushed for 12 yards net—he was sacked six times for 36 yards in losses—and completed just eight-of-21 passes for 55 yards.

Tired of numbers yet? At halftime, with a 20-0 deficit, Nebraska had 29 yards of offense and two first downs. It was a replay of the first half against Missouri—though that had been slightly worse, 17 yards and one first down. The difference was, the Huskers had come back from a 6-0 halftime deficit to roll up 252 yards, score three touchdowns and two field goals, and win 26-18.

Miami did manage only a fourth-quarter Carlos Huerta field goal. Huerta, a freshman who had hit 21-of-27 during the regular season, kicked two field goals in the first half.

But the damage had been done long before Huerta’s third, a 37-yarder.

A crowd of 75,180, the fourth-largest in Orange Bowl history, had witnessed the Husker destruction on an otherwise pleasant evening, as had a national television audience.

Taylor, two-time All-America outside linebacker Broderick Thomas and inside linebacker LeRoy Etienne, all three of whom had not redshirted and lettered as true freshmen, were among two-dozen seniors on Nebraska’s 1988 roster. They helped change a Husker culture that hadn’t talked openly about national championships and in so doing, though they never managed to win a national title, contributed in some way to Osborne’s title run. But that was still a half-dozen seasons away. 

The bowl loss, Nebraska’s second in a row, evened Osborne’s post-season record at 8-8. And despite the numbers, the Huskers were No. 10 in the final Associated Press poll, their 19th consecutive Top-10 ranking. Devaney’s 1969 team had come back from a 2-2 start to finish No. 11.

Even so, there were still heartaches by the number to come.

 
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