Tom Osborne’s Nebraska teams were very predictable. They made major bowls, but were always overmatched against the best teams in the country. Osborne became the head coach in 1973 and over the next twenty seasons reached fifteen major bowl games…and went 5-10. That included losses in the last six, with five of those to Miami or Florida State. In one sense, the 1993 Nebraska football team was more of the same. But in a deeper sense, the ‘93 Cornhuskers got some badly needed respect and set the stage for the glory days of the immediate future.
A powerful running game always keyed Osborne’s offenses and this 1993 team was no different. Sophomore quarterback Tommie Frazier only attempted 162 passes in twelve games, and wasn’t particularly effective when he did throw the ball. But he ran for over 700 yards and was second in the team in rushing.
Calvin Jones rushed for over 1,000 yards and was the team’s lead back. He got support from Lawrence Phillips, who ground out 500-plus himself. The offensive line was anchored by tackle Zach Wiegert, who got some love in the All-American voting and would have a long NFL career. Nebraska’s offense finished seventh in the country in points scored.
The star of the team was on defense and that was linebacker Trev Alberts. A first-team All-American, he was a havoc-wreaker. Alberts got 15 sacks and made 21 tackles-for-loss. He won the Butkus Award, given to the nation’s best linebacker.
Nebraska opened the season ranked #8 and that was par for the course—they were expected to be good, but a notch below the elite. An opening day tuneup against North Texas produced a 76-14 win. Texas Tech, a respectable bowl-bound team came to Lincoln next. The Red Raiders had a prolific running back in Bam Morris, who rushed for over 1,700 yards in 1993 and later became a key back on a Super Bowl team with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Cornhuskers’ rushing attack was too much though, and they won 50-27.
A visit to UCLA was the focal point of the non-conference schedule. This was a good Bruins team that would end the season in the Rose Bowl and they jumped out to a 10-0 lead. The Cornhusker offense was shooting themselves in the foot, turning the ball over four times and usually as they were moving into UCLA territory. The Alberts-led defense kept bailing them out though and Nebraska pulled out a 14-13 win.
The Cornhuskers closed non-conference play with a 48-13 win over Colorado State. They had still barely moved in the national polls, sitting at #7. League play for the old Big Eight Conference, the organizational forerunner of today’s Big 12 (sans the Texas schools and including Colorado) began in October. Nebraska opened with an unimpressive 27-13 win at lowly Oklahoma State on a Thursday night. Kansas State was up next and the Wildcats were one of three notable challengers in the Big Eight, along with Colorado and Oklahoma.
The game was a study of complete contrasts. Nebraska’s secondary was shredded by K-State quarterback Chad May, who threw for a conference record 489 yards. On the flip side, the Cornhuskers completely dominated the trenches, winning the rushing battle 391-76. Frazier led the way with 158 yards on the ground, while Jones added 138 more. Nebraska clung to a 31-28 lead deep into the fourth quarter, before blowing it open with two touchdowns in the final five minutes and winning 45-28.
An easy 49-7 win over a bad Missouri team followed set up a road trip to Colorado. These Buffs were loaded at the skill positions, with future NFL quarterback Kordell Stewart, a dual threat, behind center. The running game was a two-pronged attack led by Lamont Warren and Rashaan Salaam. The latter would eventually win the Heisman Trophy in 1994. The receiving corps had two future pros, Charles Johnson and Michael Westbrook.
But Colorado was a year away from being a nationally elite team. The game wasn’t easy for Nebraska. Jones was fighting the flu and Frazier was in and out with nagging injuries. But the defense forced three turnovers, the offense took care of the football and they won the game 21-17.
A trip to mediocre Kansas wasn’t easy. The long-moribund Jayhawks program was starting to revive under Glen Mason and they had the Big Eight’s top rusher in June Henley. Nebraska narrowly escaped with a 21-20 win. They came home on November 13 and dismantled Iowa State 49-13.
On the same day, Notre Dame beat Florida State in a 1 vs. 2 showdown at South Bend. The result opened the door for the Cornhuskers to move up to #2 in the polls, although the circumstances already had most people assuming that Nebraska would play the winner in the Orange Bowl (where the Big Eight had an automatic bid, while FSU and ND were both independents) in either case. Most of us also assumed Nebraska would again be cannon fodder for someone in a major bowl game.
There was still the matter of closing the regular season and Oklahoma was coming to town on Black Friday. A defensive struggle was tied 7-7 early in the fourth quarter. Frazier broke the tie with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Abdul Muhammad. OU fumbled the ensuing kickoff and Jones promptly raced into the end zone from twenty yards out. It was 21-7 and that’s where the game ended.
Chaos was breaking out nationally. Notre Dame had been upset by Boston College and Florida State was back on top of the polls. West Virginia, another independent was undefeated and demanding respect. Amidst the chaos though, there was one constant. Everyone agreed that Nebraska should be playing someone in the Orange Bowl for a national title. Actually there were two constants. No one believed Nebraska could even compete, much less win.
Florida State got the nod to come to South Beach. Alberts would play this game with a cast, after an injury in the Oklahoma game. He stepped up big with three sacks on FSU’s Heisman-winning quarterback Charlie Ward.
Overall, the game was not well-played on either side. No one could score in the first quarter. Frazier threw a 34-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter and it was 7-6 at the half. The game continued back-and-forth and Nebraska took a 16-15 lead in the closing minutes and was poised to finally win Osborne a national championship.
A combination of Ward and the officials did the Cornhuskers in. A couple of phantom fifteen-yard penalties helped move Florida State into field-goal range and the Seminoles took an 18-16 lead with under a minute to play.
Nebraska came storming back down the field and a pass from Frazier to tight end Trumane Bell got them to the 28-yard line of Florida State. The clock hit zero. Florida State coach Bobby Bowden was doused with Gatorade. The officials convened and put one second back in the clock. The Cornhuskers had a chance. But the 45-yard field goal attempt was badly shanked.
It was a heartbreaking loss, but out of it came respect for the Nebraska program on a national level. And one year later, they would get a lot more than respect. The 1994 team finally won that long-awaited national championship. The Cornhuskers repeated in 1995, with one of the greatest teams in college football history. In 1997, they sent Osborne into retirement with a third national crown in four years. The seeds for that glorious finish were planted in 1993.