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Desert Storm
Tim Layden
December 25, 1995
In a match of opposites, speedy Florida will air it out (and run a little), massive Nebraska will grind it out (and pass a little)—and the Gators will prevail
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December 25, 1995

Desert Storm

In a match of opposites, speedy Florida will air it out (and run a little), massive Nebraska will grind it out (and pass a little)—and the Gators will prevail

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So you think the Fiesta Bowl—bless its lucky little tortilla-chip-sponsored heart and thank you very much, Michigan—has not only matched the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country but also given us Ali-Frazier again. Or Russell-Chamberlain or Clark-Cochran. That is, Florida and Nebraska are not just the only candidates to win the poll-bowl faux national championship; they are also college football's incarnation of boxer and slugger, finesse and power, and lord knows, in some quarters, probably good and evil.

You think all this because No. 1 Nebraska arrives in Arizona for the Jan. 2 showdown, cornfed and beef-eating, straight from the heartland, and because the Cornhuskers are coached by Tom Osborne, a taciturn man who dresses like a Sunday-school teacher, treats public opinion as if it were a foul odor, says patronizingly of his own offense, "Oh, you know, we run up the middle, pass every 10 plays..." and looks every bit of his 58 years. And because Nebraska plays football as if it were building a fiat stretch of Midwestern highway: pave, flatten, roll on.

You think this because Florida wings in from the 21st century, playing Ultimate Frisbee in pads, and because the Gators are coached by Steve Spurrier, a brash, confident man who chesses like a guy who cleans pools, who always looked to shoot in the lunchtime pickup basketball games when he coached at Duke ("He didn't play any defense," says Blue Devil hoops coach Mike Krzyzewski), says seriously of his own team's offense, "Field goals—we don't kick many of those," and looks a decade younger than his 50 years. And because Florida plays football as if it were a 10-year-old sitting on your living room floor, busily manipulating the controls of a video game.

But these are generalizations that scarcely scratch the surface of the matchup and entirely miss the point. Sure enough, Nebraska and Florida are different forms of entertainment: Think of the Cornhuskers as It's a Wonderful Life and the Gators as Toy Story. But what the two schools share is far more significant—and far more central to the outcome of the game—than what they do not: a stubborn, cocksure arrogance rooted in the belief that their system is the best.

Think about it: Nebraska runs with impunity, against everybody, mixing in a passing game that is more complex than fans realize. In recent years the Cornhuskers have added team speed and quickness, completing the package. Florida passes with impunity, against everybody, mixing in a running game that is more complex than fans realize. In recent years the Gators have added power and size, completing the package. Neither team has been stopped this year, which is why they are here, a combined 23-0.

Which leaves us with four questions, the answers to which will decide the game:

1 Is Florida's passing game the key to ending Nebraska's recent dominance?

Possibly. In early October, USC coach John Robinson had just finished preparing his team for Washington State and thus had watched films of Nebraska's 35-21 win on Sept. 30 over the Cougars. Through the air Washington State was 20 of 37 for 278 yards and two touchdowns. "Throw the ball down the field, put pressure on [ Nebraska's] corners," Robinson said. "Maybe a team like Colorado could do it." Colorado couldn't, though Buffalo coach Rick Neuheisel thought he had a solid plan. "Draws and short passes, then hit the long ball," Neuheisel says. The problem was that Colorado quarterback John Hessler completed only 21 of 43 passes, and he was sacked twice and intercepted twice. But a question hung in the air after Nebraska's 44-21 victory on Oct. 28: What if Colorado's first-string QB, Koy Detmer, had been healthy?

Says Washington State coach Mike Price: "You can throw the ball against Nebraska. We did."

Florida, meanwhile, has the most advanced passing game in the country. "Steve's passing attack, I don't know of another one that's quite like it," says Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, whose team lost to Florida 35-24 on Nov. 25. For the season, Gator quarterback Danny Wuerffel completed 64.6% of his passes for an average of 296.9 yards a game, with 35 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions. But none of these statistics do justice to the lethal efficiency of the Florida system. " Nebraska's not used to seeing anything like they're fixing to see against Florida," says Auburn quarterback Patrick Nix.

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