Decade hasn't eased Huskers' 31-30 pain

December 31, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

MIAMI -- Turner Gill stood Wednesday at one end of the Orange Bowl, the field of Nebraska's broken dreams. A reporter asked, "Which end zone was it?" Gill nodded toward the bleachers on the other side of the stadium. "It doesn't take much to remember," he said.

Gill was the quarterback on Nebraska's 1983 team, "The Greatest Team Ever" according to Sports Illustrated, the team that would have been national champion, if only coach Tom Osborne had settled for a tie instead of going for two against Miami in the waning moments of the '84 Orange Bowl.

A decade later, the decision still haunts Osborne. Nebraska trailed Miami 31-17 with seven minutes remaining, but pulled within 31-30 on a touchdown with 48 seconds left. Osborne went for two, Gill's pass was tipped away, and after 21 years, the coach still is pursuing his first national championship.

Now, on the same field, with Gill as its quarterback coach, Nebraska wants to reverse history. The Cornhuskers, 17-point underdogs to Florida State, are using the '84 Orange Bowl as inspiration. No. 1 Nebraska was a 10 1/2 -point favorite over No. 5 Miami, and what did it matter?

"It's unbelievable . . . they're all handing Florida State the trophy without having them play the game," quarterback Tommie Frazier said. "If that's the case, Nebraska should have won in '83 for scoring 52 points a game. But to get the trophy, they had to go out and win the national championship game."

Frazier is only a sophomore, and he's from Florida, of all places, but he knows his history. Gill, of course, is there to tell him. So are the dozens of native Nebraskans on the Cornhuskers' roster, many of whom were 11 or 12 when Osborne began his four-game losing streak to Florida teams in the Orange Bowl.

"I was a little kid then," said Zach Wiegert, Nebraska's 6-foot-5, 300-pound offensive tackle. "I think back to it sometimes. The fact that they lost that way depressed the whole state for at least a year. It was one of the greatest teams I've ever seen."

It was a team that featured Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier and Outland Trophy winner Dean Steinkuhler, not to mention Gill and All-America wide receiver Irving Fryar. It was a team that entered the Orange Bowl 12-0, but a team that had only one opponent make the final regular-season Top 20.

Nebraska, of course, still plays the same soft Big Eight schedule, but the '83 team was so strong, few questioned its legitimacy. Indeed, the Cornhuskers nearly won the Orange Bowl without Rozier, who suffered a third-quarter ankle injury. His backup, Jeff Smith, scored the final two touchdowns.

"Our team felt we'd win every single game that year," Gill said. "Even 14 points behind in the fourth quarter, I was saying, 'We're going to win the game.' The last drive, I said, 'Don't get too excited when we score, we're going for two.' We had no timeouts left. I didn't want us getting a delay of game.' "

Why didn't Osborne just kick the extra point? Because he figured that a tie would cost him the national championship. It was the noble approach -- the approach Notre Dame's Ara Parseghian didn't take against Michigan in 1966 -- but Osborne no longer is convinced it was the right move.

"I would probably do the same thing," Osborne said. "The only thing that's changed is that when I went for two before, I just assumed that to be the national champion, you'd have to win the game. From what everyone has told me since, that might not be the case."

Said Gill: "A lot of people still ask, 'Do you back up Tom Osborne's decision to go for two points?' I would have been disappointed if he didn't. Today, I still have the same strong feelings. No regrets whatsoever."

Gill went on to play two seasons in the CFL and three years of minor-league baseball with Cleveland and Detroit. This is his second season as the Cornhuskers' quarterback coach. "Life doesn't stop, just because you lose a football game," he said.

Yet, as a coach, Gill isn't above using the '84 Orange Bowl as a motivational weapon. "He's made comments this week about how I have the opportunity to do something he didn't do," Frazier said. "This would mean a lot for him, to win it as a coach. I think he was really hurt in '84. This would ease some of the pain he feels."

Little did he realize it, but Frazier was invoking a famous line from the baseball movie, "Field of Dreams." Ease Gill's pain -- that's one of Frazier's missions in the Orange Bowl. A decade later, he'll be trying to reverse history, on the field of Nebraska's broken dreams.

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