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THE BIG RED ONE

Published Oct. 3, 2005

(after plate change)

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

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

"Just to be a part of this is great," said right tackle Zach Wiegert. "This is the team that will go down in history as having gotten Tom Obsorne his first national championship. No one will remember the faces, but they'll remember us for that."

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

More to the point, they will be No. 1 because MVP 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 behind his huge front line 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 a fourth-down desperation pass.

Frazier was the key, coming off the bench to direct the decisive drives. "It's a tribute to him that he came in and played like he did," said tackle Rob Zatechka, part of the huge Nebraska line.

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 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 playing in an Orange Bowl stadium where they have been almost invincible. They were playing in an Orange Bowl where they won the 1983 and 1991 national championships by beating Nebraska (Erickson also won the 1989 national 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, weighted 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 simple 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 'Huskers head coach, has his first national championship and Nebraska's third, joining Bob Devaney (1970, '71).

"It's not over yet," Osborne said, "but I suspect we've got a good chance. Joe Paterno said he wasn't going to lobby and I agreed not to, too, so I'm not going to say any more."

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. Nebraska's defense had come to life, stopping the 'Canes dead in their tracks.

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 with 7:38 to play.

Fate had given Osborne another two-point opportunity _ and Frazier delivered with a throw to tight end Eric Alford.

Miami again went where it had gone most of the second half _ nowhere _ and punted. 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.

"Their defensive front was tired and we knew that it was the heart of their defense," Frazier said. "We just pounded on them."

"We were in tremendous condition," added Osborne. "We felt if we could be close going into the fourth quarter, we had a chance."

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.

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.

Brook Berringer, who replaced Frazier at the start of the second quarter and passed Nebraska to its only first-half TD, was still in there after halftime.

As the third quarter wound down Berringer 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. 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 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, with the 'Canes running up a 10-0 lead while Nebraska barely got past midfield.

Frazier's two serious attempts at long-distance passing went for naught, the second one intercepted by Carlos Jones at the Miami 3.

It was as good as any punt might have been _ except that the 'Canes then moved 97 yards in five plays, their longest drive of the season.