At long, long last, the quest is over for Tom Osborne, and the national championship almost certainly belongs to Nebraska.
Vindication came after 22 seasons and, appropriately, it came at the Orange Bowl, site of two wrenching losses that cost the coach national titles in the past.His futility ended Sunday night when the top-ranked Cornhuskers rallied to beat No. 3 Miami 24-17 behind the fourth-quarter leadership of quarterback Tommie Frazier and a stellar defense.
"I doubt if Nebraska will ever play in this stadium again," said Osborne, referring to the end of the Big Eight's contract with the Orange Bowl. "It's a great way to close it out, playing Miami in Miami and beating them. We've had a terrible time with them and Florida State."
The final Associated Press poll won't be released until Tuesday morning, after all the Jan. 2 bowl games are played. But even if second-ranked Penn State (11-0) beats Oregon in the Rose Bowl, Nebraska (13-0) seems certain to finish No. 1.
Every other No. 1 team that has won its bowl game has won the national championship.
"I don't know if we've won it. I suppose we have a chance," Osborne said. "I told (Penn State coach) Joe Paterno that I wouldn't lobby, and I won't. I'm sure he won't, either."
Frazier, playing for the first time since being sidelined with blood clots in late September, guided the Cornhuskers to two touchdowns by Cory Schlesinger in the last eight minutes after sitting out the second and third quarters.
"We knew their defense was tired," said Frazier, who was named Nebraska's most valuable player in the Orange Bowl for the second consecutive year. "All we had to do was pound the ball at them. We knew our (huge offensive) line would move them back 5 or 6 yards every down."
In a controversial decision, Osborne chose Frazier to start the game instead of Brook Berringer, who was 7-0 as a starter in Frazier's absence. The decision paid off when, with Frazier at the controls, Schlesinger scored on runs of 15 and 14 yards in the fourth quarter to rally Nebraska from a 17-9 deficit.
"If I start the game, I expect to finish it," Frazier said. "When my time came, I went in and got the job done."
The Cornhuskers ended a seven-game bowl losing streak and a five-game skid at the Orange Bowl, including losses to Miami in 1984 and Florida State last year that prevented Nebraska from winning national titles.
It was only the Hurricanes' second home defeat in their last 64 games. The loss also snapped their 24-game night winning streak at the Orange Bowl.
Miami, which has now lost three straight bowl games, was plagued by poor field position and penalties. The Hurricanes were flagged 11 times for 92 yards and started 12 of their 14 possessions inside their 23-yard line. Nebraska, on the other hand, began seven of its series outside its 40.
"Our kids played very hard, but you just can't make the mistakes we did and have the penalties we had, particularly in the first half," coach Dennis Erickson said.
Nebraska tied it at 17-17 with 7:38 remaining when Schlesinger scored his first touchdown and the Cornhuskers added a two-point pass from Frazier to tight end Eric Alford. The catch was made in the same end zone where a failed two-point try against Miami cost Nebraska the national title after the 1983 season.
The Cornhuskers took a 24-17 lead on Schlesinger's 14-yard run with 2:46 left, and sealed the victory when Kareem Moss intercepted Frank Costa's fourth-down pass with 1:01 remaining.
Nebraska's swarming defense held Miami (10-2) to minus 35 yards in the fourth quarter, outshining a Hurricanes' defense that led the nation in three categories.
"We weren't hungry enough - that's what gets me," said Costa, who was 18-of-35 for 248 yards and two touchdowns.
"Ninety-five percent of the guys gave 100 percent, but I don't think some guys did. Every one of their guys gave 100 percent. They wanted it more than we did."
Frazier threw only five passes, but he ran seven times for 31 yards, including a 25-yard dash on a third-and-4 play that kept Nebraska's winning drive alive. Berringer, who was 8-of-15 for 81 yards and one touchdown, was pulled after being intercepted in the Miami end zone on Nebraska's first play of the fourth quarter.
Trailing 17-9 early in the fourth quarter, Nebraska got a huge break when Miami was plagued again by its season-long punt snapping problems.
Jeffrey Taylor snapped the ball over the head of punter Dane Prewitt and it rolled to the Miami 10. Prewitt kicked it into the end zone with his left foot, drawing an illegal kick penalty that gave Nebraska the ball at the Hurricanes' 4. It was Miami's eighth botched punt of the season.
But on the next play, Berringer rolled out and his pass was picked off in the end zone by Earl Little, who had come out of the game twice previously due to injuries.
There was a controversial call on the next-to-last play of the third quarter, when Berringer fumbled a handoff to Clinton Childs. After a long delay, the officials signaled a Nebraska recovery. But after another pause, they changed their ruling and credited Miami's James Burgess with the recovery at Hurricanes' 36.
Miami opened the second half with a 78-yard touchdown drive to take a 17-7 lead. The score came on a 44-yard connection from Costa to Jonathan Harris, who caught a short pass, juked several defenders and zigzagged to the end zone.
While Nebraska struggled on offense, the Cornhuskers' highly rated defense came up with a big play later in the period. After Miami was forced back inside its 10-yard line by a double penalty, Costa was sacked in the end zone for a safety by linebacker Dwayne Harris, cutting Miami's lead to 17-9.
After stopping Nebraska on the game's opening possession, Miami drove 31 yards in 10 plays and took a 3-0 lead on Prewitt's 44-yard field goal.
Miami made it 10-0 on a 35-yard catch and run by freshman Trent Jones with four seconds left in the first quarter.
The touchdown capped a five-play, 97-yard drive, the longest of the year for Miami. The big play was a 43-yard pass from Costa to A.C. Tellison, who separated his shoulder on the Hurricanes' next series and did not return.
After Nebraska failed to score on its first two series, Osborne replaced Frazier with Berringer.
Berringer couldn't move the Cornhuskers on his first drive. But the next time Nebraska got the ball, he rolled right and hit tight end Mark Gilman with a 19-yard touchdown pass.