The 1984 Orange Bowl—following the 1983 college football season–was arguably the most seminal game in college football history, when the heavily favored Nebraska Cornhuskers met the up-and-coming Miami Hurricanes.
When Miami pulled the 31-30 upset it not only won the national championship and produced one of the most-replayed plays in college football history, it was a landmark moment in the transformation of the sport itself. Let’s look back on the road Miami and Nebraska took to reach the Orange Bowl.
The Miami program had been in the doldrums when Howard Schnellenberger took over the program in 1979 and after a 5-6 opening year, promptly went 25-9 over the next three seasons.
Schnellenberger had freshman Bernie Kosar at quarterback, who would go on to an outstanding NFL career with the Cleveland Browns. Kosar threw for over 2,300 yards, completed 61 percent of his passes and averaged 7.1 yards-per-attempt, while orchestrating one of the more sophisticated passing attacks in the country.
Kosar’s favorite target was tight end Glenn Dennison, who caught 54 passes for 594 yards. The best big-play threat was Eddie Brown, who got 640 yards out of his 30 catches. Stanley Shakespeare was good for 34 more receptions.
Albert Bentley caught 32 passes out of the backfield and ran for 722 yards. Keith Griffin rushed for 447 in a well-balanced attack that moved the football around. The defense was led by linebacker Jay Brophy, who got some votes for All-American at the end of the season.
Miami still opened the season unranked and when they were beat up by a good Florida team, 28-3, there was no reason to expect a special season in the works.
Easy games against Houston and Purdue led to easy wins of 29-7 and 35-0. On the final weekend of September, 13th-ranked Notre Dame came to Coral Gables. The Hurricanes dominated in a 20-0 win and moved into the national rankings at #13.
Another soft part of the schedule followed, with Duke, Louisville, Mississippi State and Cincinnati all finishing with losing records. Miami rolled four easy wins, outscoring the opposition 146-45 and were up to #7 in the polls when West Virginia came rolling into town on the final weekend of October.
The Mountaineers were ranked 12th and had future pro Jeff Hostetler at quarterback. It was realistically an elimination game for major bowl consideration and the Hurricane defense was ready. They held West Virginia to two yards rushing. Miami sacked Hostetler five times in spite of only rushing three men.
WVA head coach Don Nehlen gave his opponent the supreme compliment by pulling Hostetler, feeling they could no longer keep him safe. Kosar went 19/36 for 211 yards, with Dennison pulling in in seven catches. The final was 20-3 and at #5 in the country, Miami was at the forefront of possible opponents for top-ranked Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.
The ‘Canes didn’t play well in a home game with East Carolina, but they won 12-7. A bigger test came at Florida State to end the season. The Seminoles were only 6-4, but this game was played with the competitiveness that would make it the hottest rivalry in sports within five years.
FSU led 16-14 in the fourth quarter, with an early safety threatening to be the difference. Miami kicker Jeff Davis had already missed field goals of 46 & 41. Instead of enduring the same kind of infamy that Seminole kickers would in the early 1990s, Davis got another chance.
Kosar drove his team to the two-yard line and Davis kicked a simple 19-yarder on the final play to win 17-16. Miami got the nod to the Orange Bowl, and with the three teams between them and Nebraska in the polls—Texas, Auburn and Illinois—all playing in different bowls, Miami had a theoretical path to the national title.
Nebraska 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—and 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 rolled 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 State—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 time of all-time in the Orange Bowl.
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 really tested—to become exposed.
An early Cornhusker drive ended with a blocked field goal and then Kosar went to work. He began carving up the Nebraska defense, twice finding Dennison for touchdown passes and building up a 17-0 lead.
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. Miami then showed its own flaws in the kicking game, when Davis missed an insurance field goal from 42.
Nebraska had one more chance and Gill launched a last-ditch drive for glory. He led the Cornhuskers to the Hurricane 26-yard line. Gill dropped back to throw, had Fryar wide-open in the left corner and 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. 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 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.
There was still the matter of voting on the national champion. Fourth-ranked Illinois had been destroyed in the Rose Bowl, while #3 Auburn won the Sugar. It was a choice of Miami or Auburn for the crown.
Auburn had beaten eight bowl teams to Miami’s two and the Tigers had come through a particularly brutal stretch in November where they beat three Top 10 teams in three weeks, including a road win over the Georgia team that had upset Texas in the Cotton Bowl.
If it sounds like I think Auburn should have won the vote, that’s correct. But the incredible drama of Miami’s win over Nebraska, compared to Auburn’s dry 9-7 win over Michigan in the Sugar, were the last thing voters remembered and the Hurricanes took home the top spot. Auburn couldn’t even pass Nebraska, who was kept in at #2.
The ultimate historic impact of this game is in what happened afterward. Miami became a dynasty and won national titles in 1987, 1989 and 1991, along with a resurgence in 2001. They had near-misses in 1985, 1986, 1988, 1992 and 2002. It was just one part of what became a surge in college football power to the Sunshine State, as Florida State and Florida became national powers.
Miami had overturned the establishment and it started with a landmark night in South Beach on January 2, 1984.