Fiesta foes alike, in different way Paths vary, but success is same for Neb., Fla.

Fiesta Bowl

January 02, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

TEMPE, Ariz. -- There are the opposing coaches, one who's cautious and the other who's cocky. There are the teams, one that will play in its third straight national championship game and the other that will play in its first. There are the offenses, very much a reflection of the men who orchestrate them.

Some would call tonight's Fiesta Bowl game between top-ranked Nebraska (11-0) and No. 2 Florida (12-0) at Sun Devil Stadium a study in contrasts, but Gators coach Steve Spurrier isn't one of them. "There are more similarities than you might think," Spurrier said yesterday.

There is the fact that neither team has lost in a while: The Cornhuskers are riding a 24-game winning streak, the longest in college football, and are looking to become the first team in 39 years to win undisputed back-to-back national championships; the Gators are trying to complete their first unbeaten season.

There are the offenses. Though radically different in execution, Nebraska's power running game and Florida's finesse passing game have produced similarly one-sided results. There are the defenses, both question marks going into the season, but vastly improved, which could be the X-factor as the game develops.

And there are the coaches. Though Spurrier is considered outspoken and Osborne perennially defensive, they are among a nearly extinct breed of head coaches who still call their own plays. The plays they call in their first meeting against each other undoubtedly will factor significantly in the outcome.

Asked if he plans to try to set up his team's vaunted pass offense with early running plays, Spurrier said: "Considering they're No. 2 in the country against the run, I don't think it would be a priority of ours."

Don't expect the Gators suddenly to turn conservative, moving away from their "Fun 'n' Gun" offense featuring quarterback Danny Wuerffel and All-America wide receiver Chris Doering. Nor will the Cornhuskers try too many trick plays, though Osborne certainly has become more daring in recent years.

And though these are two of the highest-scoring teams in the country -- Nebraska's 50.8 points a game ranked first, Florida's 44.5 third -- don't expect this to be a wild shoot-'em-up in the desert. "There's always a chance for that," said Spurrier. "Usually in big games like this, the defense comes to the forefront more than people think."

Much will depend on how the teams have survived all the hype. The Cornhuskers have been reminded for more than a month about their place in college football history -- a victory also would make them the winningest team in Division I-A history during a single three-year period. The Gators have been asked ad nauseam how they'll react to their first national championship setting.

"We've mentioned it being something like our 36th win [in three years] and our third straight championship game," said Nebraska center Aaron Graham. "But it's not like we talk about it all the time. We're approaching it like we've done all season, taking it one game at a time."

Said Wuerffel: "If we come out all wide-eyed and panicky, we could be in trouble. But this team has been in big games before, so it shouldn't be a problem."

It was only two years ago that Nebraska was in a similar position in the Orange Bowl. The Cornhuskers played well as heavy underdogs to Florida State and wound up losing, 18-16, their dreams going awry as a long, last-second, field-goal try sailed wide.

As a result, they came into last year's Orange Bowl against Miami as slight underdogs and heavy sentimental favorites. Riding a string of seven straight New Year's Day losses, %J Nebraska came from behind to beat the Hurricanes, 24-17, and win its first national championship under Osborne.

Now, Nebraska, and Osborne in particular, no longer are the underdog or the sentimental choice. The Cornhuskers suddenly are perceived as the sport's bad guys because of a series of alleged and admitted crimes by members of this year's team, culminating with the highly publicized assault by Lawrence Phillips and his highly criticized reinstatement.

"I don't know if we were the sentimental favorites last year," said Osborne. "If we're not this year, there's nothing we can do. We can't control sentiment."

Not that the sentiment is for Spurrier, who has sparked a few brush fires of his own over his six seasons at Florida, mostly with his mouth. The 50-year-old coach has a reputation as arrogant and condescending, and doesn't seem to care a lick.

"I have a clear conscience," he said yesterday.

A victory for the Gators would be the end of a long, uphill struggle for a program that had its share of problems on the field during the 1970s and more than its share off the field during the NCAA probation-marred 1980s. They have been on the brink of moving into this stratosphere several times, but never as close as tonight.

"When we set our goal to win the East division [of the Southeastern Conference], that was big, and we set our goal to win the SEC championship game, that was big," said Spurrier. "But this is a lot bigger than anything we've done before, no doubt about it."

And on defense . . .

With all the pre-game hype focusing on the offense, the defenses have been overlooked. Here's how the Florida and Nebraska defenses stack up (per-game averages):

.. .. .. ... ... .. Fla. .. .. .. Neb.

Rushing .. .. .. .. 130.2 .. ... .78.4

Passing .. ... ... .185.4 .. ... 215.7

Total yards .. ... .315.6 .. .. .294.1

Yards per play .. ..4.7 .. ... ... 4.5

Fumbles forced .. ..2.5 .. ... ... 2.1

Fumbles recovered . 1.3 .. ... ... 0.7

Interceptions .. ...0.7 .. ... ... 1.8

Sacks .. ... .... . 2.4 .. ... ... 2.9

Fiesta Bowl

No. 1 Nebraska (11-0)

vs. No. 2 Florida (12-0)

Site: Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.

When: Tonight, 8:30

TV: Chs. 13, 9

Line: Nebraska by 3 1/2

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