In the annals of great teams that never won it all—in any sport—the 1983 Nebraska football team is as renowned—even as revered–as any. They spent a regular season crushing all comers. In the Orange Bowl they played for the win when a tie would have been sufficient. And they missed a national championship by the narrowest of margins.
The program was hungry for its first national championship run since 1971 when Bob Devaney was on the sidelines. After head coach Tom Osborne took over, he had a hard time getting past the hump that was Oklahoma in the Big Eight. But the previous two years had seen Nebraska win the conference and its attendant Orange Bowl bid. They had come close to the national title in 1982, losing only a disputed game at Penn State.
College football’s schedule had a new wrinkle this year—the Kickoff Classic, a new concept where two high-profile opponents would play at a neutral site. Nebraska would get its grudge match against Penn State in the Meadowlands.
This Nittany Lion team wasn’t in the same class as they one that ended up with the 1982 national title, but it didn’t make the pounding the Cornhuskers administered any less sweet. They were ahead 21-0 by half and didn’t allow a point until twenty seconds remained in the 44-6 beatdown.
Nebraska outrushed Penn State 322-82 and overcame a bizarre game where they fumbled nine times, but recovered eight of them. Penn State added five more fumbles, but got four of them back.
The game sent a clear message that Nebraska intended to validate its preseason #1 ranking. Mike Rozier was the latest in the assembly line of great Cornhusker running backs. He rolled up over 2,100 yards and won the Heisman Trophy this season. Rozier ran behind an offensive line that was led by Outland Trophy winner Dean Steinkhuler.
Turner Gill was at quarterback, and while he didn’t have to throw a lot, Gill still completed 55 percent of his passes—respectable in 1983—had a very good 8.9 yards-per-attempt and a sterling 14-4 TD/INT ratio. Gill finished fourth in the Heisman balloting and his top receiver was future NFL starter Irving Fryar, who caught 40 passes for 780 yards.
The defense was not great, but had a good ballhawk in Bret Clark who intercepted five passes. And with the way Nebraska’s offense piled up yards and points, the defense didn’t need to be special.
Nebraska rolled up 56 points against Wyoming and a mind-boggling 84 at Minnesota. The Cornhuskers leveled UCLA, the defending and future Rose Bowl champions by a 42-10 count. A 63-7 romp over Syracuse followed before a trip to Stillwater finally brought a real test.
Oklahoma State won seven games under head coach Jimmy Johnson, who would be in Miami by the following season. Nebraska narrowly escaped with a 14-10 win.
The routs resumed with a 34-13 win over Missouri, a 69-19 bulldozing of Colorado and a 51-25 blasting of Kansas State. Nebraska’s final two home games saw wins over Iowa State and Kansas—by scores of 72-29 and 67-13.
It was the stuff of all-time greatness and though the schedule wasn’t brutally tough, Nebraska had already beaten six teams that would finish with winning records (Penn State, Wyoming, UCLA, Syracuse, Oklahoma State and Missouri). And one more was on deck—the Cornhuskers were going to Oklahoma on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
This was not a great Sooners team. After opening the season ranked #2 they had already lost three games. But OU was 5-1 in Big Eight play and if they won this game, they’d tie Nebraska for the conference title and go to the Orange Bowl on the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Predictably, Oklahoma played one of its best games of the season. Nebraska fell behind 14-7 in the second quarter, giving up a 39-yard touchdown to Spencer Tillman, the league’s second-best rusher behind Rozier. Then a 73-yard pass-and-catch between OU quarterback Danny Bradley and running back Buster Rhymes gave the Sooners the lead and put everyone on upset alert.
A Rozier touchdown run tied it by halftime, but Tillman answered with an 18-yard touchdown run that put Nebraska in a 21-14 hole. Osborne kept dialing up Rozier’s number, and the back ended up with 205 yards on 32 carries. Nebraska scored consecutive touchdowns and took a 28-21 lead.
Oklahoma came driving down the field in the closing minutes and got 2nd-and-goal on the one-yard line with less than a minute to play. What head coach Barry Switzer would do if he got the touchdown made for interesting speculation—a tie, as existed before the institution of overtime in 1996, didn’t do OU any good—Nebraska would win the conference title.
But a tie would knock Nebraska out of the #1 spot and put them at the mercy of #2 Texas, who was Cotton Bowl-bound. Would Switzer hate Nebraska enough to just kick the extra point in a decision that seemed imminent?
We never found out the answer. An illegal motion penalty set Oklahoma back. Nebraska’s Bill Weber than got a sack to push the ball back to the 9-yard line. Cornerback Neil Harris then sealed it, twice batting away passes into the end zone to preserve the 28-21 win.
It had been a struggle, but the Cornhuskers concluded their undefeated season and were fully expected to validate their standing as perhaps the greatest team of all-time in the Orange Bowl. The opponent was fifth-ranked Miami, a newcomer on the national stage and led by freshman quarterback Bernie Kosar.
Nebraska was a 10 ½ point favorite in the Orange Bowl, a hefty number given that it was a literal home game for Miami. It didn’t take long for Nebraska’s weaknesses—a defense and kicking game that were never really tested—to become exposed.
An early Cornhusker drive ended with a blocked field goal. Then Kosar started carving up the Nebraska defense. The nation watched in shock as the Cornhuskers fell behind 17-0.
Nebraska finally broke through on a “fumble-rooskie” play, where Gill set the ball on the ground, Steinkhuler pulled around, picked it up and raced into the end zone for a touchdown. The Cornhuskers pulled even, 17-17.
Miami bounced back with consecutive touchdown drives of 70-plus yards and at 31-17, with Rozier having to leave the game with a bad ankle, it looked like it was all over but the shouting.
Osborne turned to his bench and found backup running back Jeff Smith. Early in the fourth quarter, he scored from a yard out. The Hurricanes missed a field goal that might have wrapped it up. Nebraska had one more chance.
Gill launched a last-ditch drive for glory. He led the Cornhuskers to the Hurricane 26-yard line and dropped back to throw. Fryar was wide-open in the left corner and Gill hit the receiver with a perfect pass…which Fryar dropped.
It would have been the play that lived in college football infamy if not for Smith and Gill. On 4th-and-8, Gill ran the option, read it correctly and pitched to Smith, who found the right sideline and took it the rest of the way. The score was 31-30 and there were 48 seconds left.
The events of earlier in the day could have impacted Osborne’s own decision now. Texas had lost in the Cotton Bowl and there were no other unbeaten teams. A tie meant a certain national title for Nebraska. But Osborne believed there was no honor in winning a championship by deliberately taking a tie and he never hesitated in going for two.
Gill rolled right. Smith flashed open in the end zone. Gill threw a pass right on target, but Hurricane safety Ken Calhoun got his finger in there and the ball bounced away. Miami covered the onside kick and the upset was complete.
Osborne was widely praised for his honor in going for two, although media praise is fickle. Over the next decade, as he continued to miss out on the national championship, he came under fire for not “winning the big one.” But in 1994, Nebraska broke through and won three national titles in four years. The 1983 Nebraska Cornhuskers could finally rest in peace as the great team they truly were, rather than for what they just missed.