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Cornhuskers' Orange Bowl gamble sparked Hurricanes' dynasty

Wayne Gretzky
Mike Rozier and the Huskers ran wild on Miami, but Bernie Kosar was more than a match in Miami's 31-30 victory.
Heinz Kluetmeier/SI

By Austin Murphy,

Talk about a culture clash. This was a matchup of aristocrats and stray cats. The Nebraska Cornhuskers were football royalty. This was their seventh trip to the Orange Bowl in 14 years. They'd won 22 straight games. With Turner Gill handing off to Mike Rozier, the undefeated Big Red had averaged 52 points per game. Rozier had rushed for more 2,000 yards, scored 29 touchdowns and won the Heisman Trophy. When John Riggins was asked about the Washington Redskins' tough schedule that season, Riggo replied, "Hey, at least we don't have to play Nebraska."

Miami, meanwhile, was a scruffy band of loud and cocky rebels coached by Howard Schnellenberger, a pipe-smoking, Hefner-ian eccentric. When Miami hired him, five years earlier, school officials still weren't sure they really wanted a football program.

Starting at quarterback was a gangly redshirt freshman from Boardman, Ohio, by the name of Bernie Kosar. He worked behind an offensive line as diverse -- a Canadian, an African-American, a Cuban-American, an Irish- American and an Italian-American -- as it was anonymous. The same could be said for the entire Miami roster. Not a single Hurricane was named to an All-America team that season.

On paper, the game should not have been close. Nor, early on, was it, with Kosar putting the Huskers on their heels with his deadly, pinpoint passing. The upstarts jumped to a 17-0 lead. Midway through the fourth quarter, Miami led by two touchdowns, 31-17.

But the Hurricanes knew the storm was coming. Subbing for an injured Rozier, Jeff Smith punched in a pair of touchdowns, the second of what was a 24-yarder on fourth-and-8 late in the game. The Cornhuskers trailed 31-30, with 48 seconds to play. A tie almost certainly would've delivered to Nebraska a national championship. To his everlasting credit, coach Tom Osbourne called for a two-point conversion attempt. "We wanted an undefeated season and a clear-cut championship," he explained afterward. The idea of settling for a tie, he said, "Never entered my head."

But Gill's pass to the right corner of the end zone was batted down by Ken Calhoun. The Hurricanes, 11.5-point underdogs, won their first national title.

In addition to launching a Miami dynasty - three more national titles over the next eight years (and another in '01) - this upset in the Orange Bowl marked a sea change in how the college game was played. Coaches had long paid lip service to the axiom "speed kills," but taken comfort in brawn. (Dean Steinkuhler, of all people, scored Nebraska's first TD that night on a fumblerooskie).

Outweighed by 30-odd pounds per man, Miami was flat-out faster than the cornfed visitors. Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson after him won national titles with Schnellenberger's template: bringing in undersized (by prevailing D-I standards) guys who could fly. There are many examples (remember marauding, 5-foot-8 safety Rohan Marley?), but I'm thinking in particular of the early '90s linebacking corps of Darrin Smith, Jessie Armstead and Michael Barrow -- those guys averaged about 6-foot-1, 220 pounds -- and could run the 40-yard dash in 4.55.

For awhile, thanks to Miami, the Sunshine State became the center of the college football universe. Recruiting from the same in-state pool of talent, Bobby Bowden's Seminoles won two national titles (1993, '99). The Florida Gators won the 1996 national championship -- by beating FSU in the Sugar Bowl. There were years when the Florida state championship showcased better talent, and football, than the national championship.

Finally, we saw in Schnellenberger's band of upstarts a glimmer of the glorious, insolent, outlaw Hurricanes who would show up in army fatigues for a semi-formal dinner at the Fiesta Bowl years later. As SI's John Underwood wrote at the time, "This is no flashdance Schnellenberger has choreographed in Miami; it's a precision chorus line of young, tough, talented and cocky-loud high-steppers, and they look and act as if they might be around for a while."

Other game-changing moments:

All hail the forward pass: Football was a conservative, ground-bound pastime when Army hosted little-known Notre Dame on Nov. 1, 1913. But Fighting Irish quarterback Gus Dorais had spent the summer on an Ohio beach, throwing the ball to a slight senior end named Knute Rockne. On the Plain at West Point, Dorais hit Rockne for an early touchdown pass, going on the complete 13 of his 17 pass attempts for 243 yards in a 35-13 schooling of the better known Black Knights. That game proved a coming out for both the Fighting Irish and the forward pass.

1941 Rose Bowl: With his newfangled T formation, Clark Shaughnessy coaches Stanford to a 21-13 win over Nebraska in 1941. In an era of single- or double-wing formations, in which the ball was snapped to any one of four ball carriers, the T represented radical change. The quarterback took the ball from the quarterback directly from under center -- actually pressing his hands into the man's backside! -- pivoted, and handed directly to a running back, or faked the handoff and threw a play-action pass. Following that Rose Bowl win over the Huskers, the T formation went mainstream.

The Wishbone: Following the 1967 season, Texas coach Darrell Royal promoted linebackers coach Emory Bellard to offensive coordinator. Formerly a highly successful high school coach in the Lone Star State, Bellard was a proponent of option football. Noting that the Longhorns had a trio of very good running backs, he installed a then-unheard of triple option, later nicknamed the "wishbone" by Mickey Herskowitz of the Houston Chronicle. The Longhorns opened the '68 season with a tie and a loss. Bellard made a quarterback change, making James Street the starter. Texas didn't lose for the rest of the season. The wishbone delivered 30 straight wins, national titles in 1969 and '70 and countless imitators.

Cunningham Hits Alabama: In a 1970 clash of all-white national powerhouse Alabama and integrated Southern California, Trojans running back Sam Cunningham rushed for 135 yards and three touchdowns in an overpowering, 42-21 win. The following season, Bear Bryant integrated his team, breaking down the last stronghold of segregation in college football. The Bear was later quoted as saying, "Cunningham did more for integration in Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King Jr."
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