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On the morning before he sent his sacrificial lambs out to slaughter the butcher, University of Miami coach Howard Schnellenberger gazed out a picture window in his hotel suite high above downtown Miami and wondered aloud if the Nebraska Cornhuskers realized "what a bunch of alley cats they're about to run into." He said he doubted it. He said he doubted a number of things about No. 1-ranked, 12-0 Nebraska, including whether it was as unbeatable as everybody thought. The bookies, for example, had made the Huskers an 11-point favorite. Looking lordly in his Oriental smoking jacket and red felt slippers, Schnellenberger bit down on a bagel and wondered, too, if the Huskers realized they were about to get hit from the heavens by a round-eyed, curly-haired freshman quarterback who talks as if he's 30, thinks as if he's 40 and may not be spacy but is definitely from another world. "I doubt it," said Schnellenberger.
What he didn't doubt was his Hurricanes. "The only thing that worries me," he said, "is that they're so high I have to walk among them like a zombie so they won't get any higher. I mean they are high." He pointed out that the Hurricanes were "about to face the Russian Army, and they don't care. They think they're going to win. And I'm the silly bastard who has everybody around here thinking they will." Schnellenberger smiled. "That's O.K. I think so, too."
It's unlikely that any team in the history of college football ever got higher for a game than Miami did for Nebraska, and if you missed Monday night's Orange Bowl, you missed an emergence. Before a crowd bleating with passion, the hometown Hurricanes dealt themselves the national championship by pulling it from the hands and from under the nose of a Husker team to which many honored observers, including those with names like Parseghian, Paterno and Devaney, had already conceded supernal status. In the end, the bitten-fingernail-thin margin of a batted-away two-point conversion attempt with less than a minute to play was the difference in Miami's 31-30 victory. The win, combined with Georgia's 10-9 Cotton Bowl defeat of previously unbeaten Texas, locked up the No. 1 spot for the Hurricanes.
When the two-point pass failed, the 72,549 Orange Bowl fans—a lot of them, anyway—poured onto the field like a wave of green and orange lemmings even before the game was finally and mercifully over, mercifully because the crowd couldn't have taken much more. Down went Nebraska's 22-game winning streak, and up went the burgee of a team that may well be the next great name in the game. For 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.
What made the upset all the more stunning is that Miami was rebuilt from slag by Schnellenberger in five short years. When he took the Hurricane job in 1979, the university wasn't even sure it wanted a football team and had a pretty good idea it couldn't afford it. But now it's stuck with the best. Said Schnellenberger as the sweat dripped from his mustache in the Miami locker room, "No words can describe it."
Well, some words can and should. "Bernie Kosar" are a couple that will do for starters. Kosar has what Hurricane quarterback coach Marc Trestman calls "the gift." It almost need not be said that the gift includes the ability to pass—all good quarterbacks can do that. What distinguishes this gawky-looking post-adolescent is a mind Trestman calls "razor-sharp" and the uncanny ability, says Schnellenberger, "to find the right receiver 18 out of 20 times." Completion records are often deceiving. A quarterback who connects on 10 of 12 passes might have thrown half of those to the wrong man and thus gotten only half the yards he could have. Kosar, says Trestman, "picks up the subtleties" and is so icy cool under fire that he not only amazes his coaches but astounds his fellow players as well. "They tell me they'd protect me with their lives," Kosar says. And they do.
In the final hours before the Orange Bowl, Trestman said he knew Kosar was ready for Nebraska because "he was going around like he was bopping, loose and relaxed. But I could see the wheels turning. We run a very sophisticated offense, and he makes it go. Inside, his mind was going wild."
Against the would-be champions, Kosar did indeed go wild. Schnellenberger said if Kosar had any kind of day at all, the Cornhuskers were in for it "because in their conference [the Big Eight] they haven't seen a drop-back passer all season to compare with Bernie." The first time Miami got the ball, Kosar announced the kind of day he was going to have: three completions in three attempts on a 57-yard touchdown drive, climaxed by a two-yard toss in the right flat to tight end Glenn Dennison. Another Hurricane march ended in a field goal, and before the first quarter was over, Kosar found Dennison again, this time over the middle on a 22-yard pass play that put Miami ahead 17-0. In all, Kosar completed 19 of 35 passes for 300 yards. No quarterback had had a better day this season against the Huskers, but more crucial was this: Kosar's passing canceled the Nebraska ground attack, which had accounted for 401.7 yards a game. Against the smallish Miami defense, which gave up 36 pounds per man on the line of scrimmage, Nebraska runners had to settle for 287.
To offset the Huskers' tonnage, the Hurricanes chose to forgo the reckless chances—safety blitzes and the like—other teams had taken against Nebraska. Instead, Miami combined its natural tenacity with a bewildering number of looks, which defensive coordinator Tom Olivadotti had devised in hopes of getting the Corn-huskers into a "second-and-15 situation" at least once every time they had the ball. Certainly the Hurricanes weren't wholly successful, but Olivadotti's tactics worked frequently enough. Before the game Schnellenberger had said, "Weight only works against you if it's leaning on you. If it's not, if it has to stop to figure out where to lean, it's not a factor."
Looking at the films the Miami coaches had picked up a vital key: Nebraska center Mark Traynowicz snapped the ball on his own count—that is, whenever he was ready. The Miami linemen, like the Husker blockers, keyed off Traynowicz, which gave the Hurricanes a crucial split second they wouldn't have had if Nebraska had gone on a snap count determined in the huddle. Further, the Hurricane front five and linebackers seemed to strike from every possible angle, which saved them the wear and tear of straight-on confrontations with the Huskers' beefy line. Finally, the Miami linemen got a stunning variety of support from the secondary. "I'd give my left ear if I could get them to pass," Schnellenberger had said, and he tempted the Huskers by sending his irrepressible cornerbacks, Rodney Bellinger and Reggie Sutton, flying up to meet the dreaded Nebraska option plays. As often as not, Bellinger and Sutton were playing like linebackers, and as a result, every Husker TD drive, save the last, consumed at least 10 plays. In other words, Miami denied Nebraska the big play.