Osborne is back for Orange, aid Nebraska needs win in coach's finale, then voters' help

January 02, 1998|By PAUL McMULLEN | PAUL McMULLEN,SUN STAFF

MIAMI -- The Orange Bowl has been the setting of most of the seminal moments in Tom Osborne's distinctive coaching career.

There was frustration in three decades, most vividly in 1984, when a perfect season was stopped in a one-point loss to Miami, the first of three straight January setbacks to the Hurricanes on their home field. There was jubilation three years ago, when Nebraska finally beat Miami for the first of Osborne's two straight national championships.

Tonight's Orange Bowl (8 p.m., channels 13, 9) is the ill-fated Alliance national championship. It's also the final game of Osborne's 25-year career and will surely qualify as the most bittersweet.

The Cornhuskers are nearly two-touchdown favorites to put away No. 3 Tennessee and quarterback Peyton Manning, a folk hero in his own right, but a 13-0 record still probably wouldn't be enough to give No. 2 Nebraska and Osborne a historic third national championship in four seasons.

No. 1 Michigan had 69 of the 70 first-place votes in the Associated Press rankings heading into yesterday's narrow Rose Bowl win over No. 8 Washington State.

The pollsters have done flops before this season, as the No. 1 team has been dropped on several occasions despite victory. The most recent? Nebraska, after a 38-31 overtime win at Missouri on Nov. 8. Now Osborne wants voters to give his team the same consideration.

"As far as our team is concerned, we set a number of goals at the start of the season, and I don't think any of those are eliminated at this point," Osborne said last night after the Rose Bowl.

Osborne made his retirement official four days after a Big 12 championship rout of Texas A&M.

"I've heard it discussed that maybe I timed the announcement of my resignation so that I would get some sentimental votes," Osborne said earlier in the day. "You don't end your career to pick up a few votes. I really hope that people wouldn't do that.

"My only hope is that people at least watch the games. Don't watch the Rose Bowl and then vote; at least watch what happens on Jan. 2, and then pick out the team they think is the best."

A victory tonight would make Nebraska a staggering 60-3 during Osborne's last five seasons.

"Something happened in 1990 or '91 that shifted the mind-set of a lot of our players," said Osborne, whose 25-year record is 259-49-3. "They went from thinking about winning a conference championship to thinking about winning a national championship. That mind-set is a factor. You get what you expect.

"You have to have tradition, and you have to have luck."

Perhaps the biggest break of Osborne's career came in that Missouri game, when Shevin Wiggins used his ankle to keep alive a pass from Scott Frost, which freshman Matt Davidson dived for and caught for a touchdown on the last play of regulation. Nebraska nonetheless dropped to No. 3 afterward.

Tennessee nearly fell from the Top 10 after a 33-20 loss at Florida in Week 3, but coach Phillip Fulmer inserted true freshman Jamal Lewis at tailback and the Volunteers haven't lost since, even though they needed some help to win their first Southeastern Conference title since 1990.

The Volunteers are 3-0 in bowl games under Manning, who Fulmer said is "as close to 100 percent as he can be," in recovering from a minor knee injury. Nebraska, however, has a similar streak, the middle leg being one of the best postseason performances ever, under strikingly similar strategic circumstances.

Two years ago in the Fiesta Bowl, Osborne got his repeat national championship with a 62-24 rout of Florida, like Tennessee a pass-oriented team from the SEC. The overriding image of that game was Gators quarterback Danny Wuerffel on his back after a sack.

"Once we forced Florida to pass, that game was over," defensive tackle Jason Peter said. "They gave us problems early, and that enabled Wuerffel to throw, but once we stopped the run, we knew we could come with the entire [blitz] package.

So, the Cornhuskers will try to stuff Lewis and hold their blocks while Frost distributes the ball. The psychological side might be the hardest part. Nebraska must forget about making any

statements to the pollsters, and even more difficult, forget about Osborne's farewell.

"I told the guys, any feeling we have for him has to stay in the locker room," Peter said. "We cannot be out here crying. If we're out here thinking more about Coach Osborne than we are about stopping [Jamal] Lewis or Peyton [Manning], it's going to be a disaster."

Osborne has experienced that in Miami. And about everything else.

Orange Bowl

No. 2 Nebraska (12-0) vs. No. 3 Tennessee (11-1)

Site: Miami. Time: 8 p.m. today. TV: Chs. 13, 9. Line: Nebraska by 13 1/2 .

Coaches: Nebraska, Tom Osborne (254-49-3);

Tennessee, Phillip Fulmer (54-10)

Bowl records: Nebraska, 17-18; Tennessee, 21-16

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