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THE BIG RED ONE

Published Jan. 2, 1995|Updated Oct. 3, 2005

The agony is finally ecstasy. Tom Osborne got his two-point conversion 11 years later and he got his national championship.

The Nebraska Cornhuskers finished what they set out to do. And it is left to Dennis Erickson and Joe Paterno to wonder how it all went wrong.

Nebraska, No. 1 in both the Associated Press and CNN/USA Today polls going into Sunday night's 24-17 Orange Bowl victory over Erickson's Miami Hurricanes, undoubtedly will be No. 1 again Tuesday, regardless of what Paterno's Penn State Nittany Lions do today against Oregon in the Rose Bowl.

It will be No. 1 because no top-ranked team has ever won its bowl game and been denied the national championship.

More to the point, it will be No. 1 because Tommie Frazier, a near-hero a year ago, threw a game-tying two-point conversion halfway through the fourth quarter, because Cory Schlesinger ran for two touchdowns to lead the comeback, and because the Nebraska defense, seemingly unable to stop Miami's lightning attack, turned ferocious and impenetrable.

It devoured quarterback Frank Costa and, with 1:01 to play, Kareem Moss intercepted him at midfield on his fourth-down desperation pass.

Even if the second-ranked Nittany Lions beat the Ducks by 50 points today, the voters are almost certain to say, "So what? Look who they played." Oregon is No. 12 in the AP poll and a 17-point underdog.

The Hurricanes, who came out of the game 10-2, were No. 3 going in, and the game was listed as a tossup. The Hurricanes were the home team in an Orange Bowl stadium where they are almost invincible. They were in an Orange Bowl where they won the 1983 and 1991 national championships by beating Nebraska (Erickson also won the 1989 championship in the Sugar Bowl).

None of that matters now. Nebraska is 13-0.

"Unfinished business," is what Nebraska labeled its quest when it arrived in Miami, weighed down with a seven-year streak of bowl losses and its history of national championship failure in Orange Bowl games.

The job is done.

Last year's 18-16 loss to Florida State (when Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden gleefully relinquished the title of "winningest active coach without a national championship") is but a footnote in Nebraska history. The 31-30 loss to Miami in the 1984 Orange Bowl, when Osborne's decision to go for the win instead of the tie in the final minute cost him a national championship, now becomes more a fond memory than a painful reminder.

And somewhere in Iowa, a weight will descend upon Hayden Fry and his 205 wins. The burden of "winningest " now is his to carry.

Osborne, with his 219th victory in his 22nd season as Husker head coach, has his first national championship and Nebraska's third, joining Bob Devaney (1970, '71).

For Erickson and Paterno, it all went wrong in a veritable blink of an eye, a few minutes during the season that gave Osborne the opportunity to control his destiny.

Miami's unbeaten season, and its NCAA-record 58-game home winning streak, ended in a disastrous five minutes against Washington, when three touchdowns (a 75-yard pass, a 34-yard interception return and a fumble in the end zone) turned Miami's 14-3 halftime lead into a 25-14 deficit and eventually a 38-20 loss.

Penn State's unbeaten season never did come to an end, but the Nittany Lions fell from atop the rankings despite crushing Ohio State 63-14 and defeating Indiana 35-29 on successive Saturdays.

Despite the Nittany Lions' Oct. 29 rout of the No. 21 Buckeyes (Penn State was criticized for running up the score), Nebraska moved up to No. 1 in the AP (writers) poll. The next week, while the 'Huskers crushed Kansas 45-17, Penn State gave up a couple of meaningless TDs to Indiana in the final 1:49 that made the final score deceptively close and convinced enough coaches in the CNN/USA Today poll to shift their support to Nebraska.

The Cornhuskers have been No. 1 ever since.

When Osborne's boys had the ball 4 yards from a touchdown early in the fourth quarter, he called a play that could have haunted him as much as the two-point conversion 11 years ago. He didn't let the nation's best running game run it in _ and it cost him dearly. But only temporarily.

When Nebraska got the ball back, Lawrence Phillips ran for 25 yards to the 15 and Schlesinger the remaining 15 to cut the Miami lead to 17-15. Fate had given Osborne another two-point opportunity _ and Frazier delivered with a throw to Eric Alford.

Miami went where it had gone most of the second half _ nowhere. Frazier's option runs put the ball on the Miami 14 and Schlesinger ran it in again with 2:46 to play for the winning score.

Costa's bolt to Jonathan Harris through New Year's night air still smoking from a halftime circus extravaganza blew the Hurricanes out to a 17-7 lead.

If the Nebraska defense seemed ready to fold, it did anything but.

Miami's next drive went backward, first on penalties that pushed the 'Canes back to their 4, then into the end zone, with linebacker Dwayne Harris dragging down Costa for a safety.

As the third quarter wound down, Brook Berringer, who replaced Tommie Frazier at the start of the second quarter, found the range, passing 16, 19 and 13 yards to Abdul Muhammad as Nebraska pushed to a fourth-and-1 on the Miami 39. If the nation's best line couldn't pick up 1 yard in a championship game, it didn't deserve the championship.

It got the yard, Berringer sneaking for it. But two plays later, Miami got the ball, Berringer fumbling it on a handoff and linebacker James Burgess recovering it.

It was the second-worst thing Berringer did with the ball all night.

Miami couldn't move the ball and Jeffrey Taylor, the 'Canes' long snapper whose snaps to punter Dane Prewitt had been going higher and higher, finally sailed one over Prewitt's head. Prewitt chased it down inside his 10-yard line and kicked it into and out of the end zone. The illegal kick gave Nebraska the ball at the 4.

If the nation's best line couldn't get 4 yards . . .

It didn't get the chance. On first down Berringer rolled right and overthrew reserve tight end Mark Gilman, safety Earl Little making the diving interception. It was the last time Berringer touched the ball.

The beginning of the game had all the earmarks of a Miami runaway, the 'Canes running up a 10-0 lead while Nebraska barely got past midfield.