The 1994 Nebraska football team was one of great expectation, having just missed a national title the previous year. The program was starving for its national crown since 1971 and the first in the career of head coach Tom Osborne.
Nebraska’s offensive line was its traditionally powerful self, with soon-to-be Outland Trophy winner Zach Wiegert, along with All-American Brandon Stai. On the defensive side, linebacker Ed Stewart keyed up a unit that would earn itself the nickname “The Black Death”.
The Cornhuskers were ranked fourth in the preseason polls, trailing Florida, Notre Dame and Florida State, but when the Huskers went to the Meadowlands for the Kickoff Classic and dominated West Virginia 31-0, they were quickly moved up to number two, trailing only Florida.
Nebraska’s running game was overwhelming people, and quarterback Tommie Frazier’s three touchdown runs of 25-plus yards in the opener were just the tip of the iceberg. Lawrence Phillips took over for Jones as the featured back and rushed for over 1,700 yards. And if you wanted a change-of-pace, Nebraska could do that to, with dropback passer Brooks Berringer coming in to spell Frazier.
After a 70-21 win over Pacific, Berringer had to do more than spell Frazier. The starting quarterback had a blood clot in his left knee and his status would be on and off the rest of the season. Berringer played the whole way in a 17-6 win over Kansas State, where the Huskers only led by a point after three quarters. Florida lost on that same day, but the number one ranking went to Penn State, who’d won a road game at #5 Michigan and the #2 spot went to Big Eight rival Colorado, who had hammered Oklahoma.
The college football world was pointing to an October 29 game in Lincoln when Nebraska and Colorado could settle their business head-to-head, the debate over the Big Eight vs. Penn State had just begin.
Nebraska won the preliminary round of that debate decisively. It didn’t matter who was playing quarterback. It didn’t matter that Colorado had a great all-purpose quarterback in Kordell Stewart and it didn’t even matter that the Buffs had the future Heisman Trophy winner, Rashaan Salaam, in their backfield. The Black Death yielded to no one and the Huskers won 24-7. They had homefield advantage, but as one who watched this game and foolishly picked Colorado, they could’ve played it in Boulder and guaranteed Colorado two possessions to every one for Nebraska, and it wasn’t going to matter. This was a shutdown defense.
Colorado and Nebraska had been splitting first-place votes and the first fruit of the inheritance was that Nebraska moved past Penn State in the AP poll, while staying at #2 in the coaches’ poll. Penn State was understandably chagrined that they managed to fall out of the top spot on a day they beat Ohio State 63-14.
Penn State’s anger got worse when voter sloppiness cost them the coaches’ poll. One week later Penn State had a road win over what was then an above-average Indiana team in hand, at 35-15. Joe Paterno put in his subs. IU scored two touchdowns, one on the game’s final play. Voters saw 35-29 as the final and penalized Penn State for what looked like a narrow escape. Nebraska had irrevocable control of its own destiny.
In the days prior to the Bowl Championship Series, Penn State was locked to the Rose, while Nebraska was locked to the Orange, and make no mistake about it—this would have been The Matchup For The Ages, with either team being better than probably 75 percent of the teams that have won national championships.
Nebraska’s Orange Bowl date was with Miami. The Hurricanes were ranked #3 and stood to win the national title themselves if Oregon could upset Penn State in the Rose the next day. New Year’s Day fell on a Sunday and while all the other traditional bowls pushed their games back to January 2, as was customary, the Orange kept the prime-time spot on Sunday night, ready to grab viewers who’d finished watching the Chicago Bears upset the Minnesota Vikings in the first round of the NFL playoffs.
From their hotel rooms in Pasadena, Penn State fans watched anxiously. The rest of the nation tuned in to see if Osborne, the favorite this time, could finally get that elusive national championship.
Miami jumped out to a 10-0 lead, reminiscent of the fast 17-0 start they had gotten off to back in 1983. Berringer threw a second-quarter touchdown pass to cut the lead to three at the half, but Miami counterpart Frank Costa threw his second long TD pass of the night, a 44-yard strike in the third quarter that made it 17-7 and an upset looked very real.
Even when Nebraska got a safety and cut it to 17-9, there was reason for hope among the Penn State faithful. Overtime play was still two years away and a tie would open the door for the Nittany Lions. Nebraska’s offensive line was taking over the game, and fullback Cory Schlesinger was muscling the ‘Canes in the middle. He took it in from 15 yards out and the two-point play tied it 17-17 in the fourth quarter, but Nebraska had to treat it as though they were behind.
The advantage of having a fullback blast through a powerful offensive front is that it seems like you can make a big play without leaving your regular offense. Schlesinger owned the fourth quarter of this game and the Black Death had finally caught up to Miami. When the fullback blasted in from 14 yards out, it was the finishing touches on a 24-17 win.
Even those of us who believed Penn State deserved a share of the crown after they beat Oregon 38-20 the following day, didn’t deny Nebraska was equally worthy and that Osborne had his long-sought ring. Little did anyone know, that like Mike Krzyzewski and Michael Jordan, two other notables who had a tough time getting Championship #1, once Osborne got started, there would be no slowing the freight train that the 1994 Nebraska football team got started.