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On This Date in Sports January 2, 1984: The Rise of the U

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The legend of the U is born, as Miami stuns Nebraska 31-30 in the Orange Bowl to win their first National Championship. After trailing 31-17 at the start of the fourth quarter, Nebraska rallies with two touchdowns by Jeff Smith. The second comes with 48 seconds left, instead of going for the tie and a national title, Nebraska coach Tom Osborne goes for two, and fails to allow Miami to get the win.

Heading into bowl season, the fifth-ranked Miami Hurricanes were a longshot to win the National Championship. Just five years earlier, Miami was considering dropping football as the program had never caught traction until the arrival of Howard Schnellenberger. Schnellenberger had helped Miami become a good team but they were not a serious National Championship contender. When the 1983 season began, the Hurricanes had a freshman at quarterback in Bernie Kosar, tasked with replacing Jim Kelly. The first game did not go well, as they lost to Florida 28-3. The Hurricanes would win their final ten games and climbed the rankings reaching #5 after beating Florida State 17-16 in their final game. In a day of bowl tie-ins for a major conference, the Hurricanes were invited to play in the Orange Bowl at their home stadium against #1 Nebraska.

The Orange Bowl was expected to be a coronation for Nebraska led by Tom Osborne, as the Cornhuskers were ranked number on all season, and had a 22-game winning streak with a powerful offense that was highlighted by Heisman Winner Mike Rozier and star receiver Irving Fryer who would go on to be the first player chosen in the 1984 NFL Draft. Despite playing in Miami’s home stadium, the Huskers were an overwhelming 11-point favorite as they were by a wide margin the best team in the nation.

While Nebraska just needed a win for the National Championship, Miami at #5 needed an inside straight. The first domino fell in the Cotton Bowl, when #2 Texas, suffered their first loss of the season at the hands of #7 Georgia 10-9. Later #4 Illinois was planted by #17 UCLA 45-9 in the Rose Bowl. While the Orange Bowl was ready to start #3 Auburn was putting up a sloppy 9-7 win over #8 Michigan, this helped put the National Championship in play for Miami.

Seeing all the stars align, Miami got added boost blocking a field goal on Nebraska’s first possession. The Hurricanes used the boost to jump out to an early 17-0 lead as Bernie Kosar completed a pair of touchdown passes to Glenn Dennison adding a field goal by Jeff Davis, as Jack Fernandez picked off Nebraska quarterback Turner Gill to whip the crowd at the Orange Bowl into a frenzy. Shell-shocked Nebraska got back in the game with a trick play in the second quarter as lineman Dean Steinkuhler scored on the fumblerooski. Turner Gill later scored on a 64-yard run to the deficit to 17-14 as the game went to the half.

Nebraska would tie the game 17-17 taking advantage of an early Miami fumble in the third quarter. Miami took back momentum with a long nine-play 75-yard drive that was capped by a touchdown by Alonzo Highsmith. After stopping Nebraska again, the Hurricanes extended the lead back to 14 points on a touchdown by Albert Bentley. Down 31-17, things were looking bleak for the Cornhuskers, as they would have to play the fourth quarter without Heisman Winner Mike Rozier who suffered an ankle injury after rushing for 147 yards on 25 carries. The Huskers continued to shoot themselves in the foot as Gill fumbled late in the third quarter ending what could have been a key drive. As the fourth quarter began Nebraska got a touchdown from Rozier’s replacement Jeff Smith to cut the deficit to seven points. Miami had a chance to ice the game, but Jeff Davis missed a 42-yard field goal. With one last chance to tie the game, and earn the National Championship, Turner Gill drove the ball deep into Miami territory. With less than a minute left, the game down to one play as Nebraska faced 4th down and eight from the Miami 24. Davis turned the corner and ran down the sideline, diving at the pylon for a touchdown.

The situation came down to a decision by Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, who would have won a National Championship with a tie, having Texas, the only other unbeaten team lose earlier in the day. However, he wanted to earn it, so instead of the easy extra point, Osborne in the days before overtime went for the win. Looking for Smith in the end zone, Turner Gill tossed a pass that was knocked down by Miami’s Kenny Calhoun to keep the Hurricanes in front 31-30. After recovering the on-side-kick Miami just needed to get in victory formation for their first National Championship. Many still regard the 1984 Orange Bowl one of the greatest games in NCAA history.

After the game, Miami would see their coach Howard Schnellenberger leave with the hopes of running a new USFL team in Miami. However, when the plans fell thru, he ended up at Louisville in 1985. Miami meanwhile hired Jimmy Johnson and became the dominant team in the NCAA over the next decade, becoming a powerhouse with an attitude that signaled a new day for college football.

Tom Osborne meanwhile would often be foiled by Miami in his quest for a National Championship as he had to wait until 1994 to finally get his first title. Though it would be the first of three titles in a four-year period for the Huskers.