1984 Orange Bowl
|1984 Orange Bowl|
|Date||January 2, 1984|
|Stadium||Miami Orange Bowl|
|Referee||Jimmy Harper (Southeastern Conference)|
|United States TV coverage|
|Announcers||Don Criqui and John Brodie|
The 1984 Orange Bowl was the 50th annual Orange Bowl Classic, played on January 2, 1984, between the unbeaten Nebraska Cornhuskers and the once-beaten Miami Hurricanes, for the national championship. After leading 31-17 in the fourth quarter, Miami held on for a 31-30 victory. Nebraska pulled to within one with :48 left to play, but a two-point conversion attempt by Nebraska failed when quarterback Turner Gill's pass was tipped away by Miami safety Ken Calhoun. It was also the last game for Howard Schnellenberger as he left the team in pursuit of a USFL team in Miami.
Nebraska came into the game ranked #1 in both major polls, with a 12-0 record, having steamrolled just about every opponent on the 1983 schedule, except for close road wins at Oklahoma State (14-10) and at Oklahoma (28-21). Led by Heisman Trophy winning I-back Mike Rozier, future NFL #1 draft pick Irving Fryar at wingback and with All-American quarterback and Heisman finalist Turner Gill calling the signals, the Huskers of 1983 were a formidable outfit, averaging 52 points a game and having rolled up tallies of 84-13, 72-29, 69-19, 67-13 and 63-7 against Minnesota, Iowa State, Colorado, Kansas, and Syracuse, respectively. In the third quarter against Colorado, Nebraska managed to score seven touchdowns in 12 minutes. They did have notable weaknesses, however. They had a fairly mediocre defense that was vulnerable to the pass, especially across the middle of the field, owing to the fact the Big Eight was dominated by run-oriented offenses, notably Oklahoma's wishbone. Nebraska also had a fairly average kicking game. Both of these weaknesses would haunt the Cornhuskers on the night.
Miami, coached by Howard Schnellenberger, came in the quiet achiever, having been blown out 28-3 by Florida in their opening game and thought by many to be not much of a challenge to the much higher-fancied Cornhuskers. Nevertheless, they had won 10 straight games following their opening defeat, to emerge as a solid #5 in the Associated Press poll, while ranked one spot higher in the UPI poll. They were led by freshman quarterback Bernie Kosar, who had completed 61.5 percent of his passes for 2,328 yards and 15 touchdowns and had started all 11 games. Miami had a very good defense. In fact, their defense was the 2nd best in the nation, in scoring defense (9.6 points per game) and in total defense (259.4 yards per game).
Also, earlier in the day second-ranked Texas had been upset in the 1984 Cotton Bowl Classic by Georgia by the score of 10-9; in primetime, third-ranked Auburn Tigers squeaked out a 9-7 win over Michigan in the 1984 Sugar Bowl; and fourth-ranked Illinois fell to unranked UCLA 45-9 in the 1984 Rose Bowl. This combination of upsets gave Miami the chance to leapfrog to No. 1, should they defeat the Cornhuskers.
Nebraska came into the game as a 10½ point favorite, and early on it looked very much like the blowout many people anticipated. On their opening drive, the Huskers moved downfield rather easily. However, the Hurricanes got an early lift when they forced Nebraska to attempt a field-goal, which they then blocked. It was a huge early momentum swing and they would capitalize very quickly. Kosar's two touchdown passes to Glenn Dennison along with a 45-yard Jeff Davis field goal would give Miami a stunning 17-0 lead at the end of one quarter. Miami's 2nd touchdown came after linebacker Jack Fernandez intercepted a pass from Gill at the Miami 35 and Kosar throwing a pass to Eddie Brown for a touchdown, but the Kosar to Brown touchdown was erased after Stanley Shakespeare was caught for illegal blocking on a Nebraska defensive back and thus resulted in a 15-yard penalty, but it was good enough for a 1st down.
Nebraska didn't panic. Early in the second quarter, Osborne reached into his bag of tricks. First, in an attempt to confuse Kosar, he switched jerseys between defensive backs Dave Burke and Mike McCashland. As a result, Burke, wearing McCashland's jersey, intercepted a pass from Kosar at the Nebraska 26. Then, he ran a trick play known as the fumblerooski. Nebraska quarterback Gill intentionally “fumbled” the snap from center by effectively setting it on the turf. The ball was picked up by All-American offensive guard Dean Steinkuhler, who ran left with the ball on a 19 yard touchdown run. While it is neither the first nor the last time this play has been run, it is arguably the most famous incidence of this play, which is now illegal. A touchdown run by Gill later in the period made the score 17-14 at halftime.
It was at this point that the familiar script everyone expected had again appeared, after Miami fumbled at the 23-yard line of their own territory and Nebraska added three points to tie 17-17, beginning in the 3rd quarter. And it was at this point that Miami again decided not to cooperate with it. Two long touchdown drives of 75 and 73 yards took the score back out to 31-17, behind the passing of Kosar (who would pass for exactly 300 yards on the night) and the running of backs Alonzo Highsmith and Albert Bentley, who each contributed rushing touchdowns to cap each drive. Things would get even bleaker for Nebraska when Rozier left the game with an injured ankle, after having rushed for 147 yards on 25 carries.
Nebraska had a lot of opportunities to score without Rozier. Late in the 3rd quarter, Gill ran to his left, initially keeping the ball and running into the grasp of a Miami defender before pitching the ball to backup I-back Jeff Smith, who came off the bench, ran for 40-yards before fumbling at the Miami 1-yard line, which Miami eventually recovered. Early in the 4th quarter, Gill throws the ball to Scott Kimball at the end zone, but Rodney Bellinger broke up the pass. After Kevin Fagan sacked Gill at the Miami 31, Nebraska was forced to attempt a field goal, which they missed.
After Miami went three and out, Smith scored on a 1-yard run early in the 4th quarter on a 75-yard drive, which brought the margin back to 31-24. Then Nebraska caught a break, when Davis missed a 42-yard field goal attempt that would have made the margin 10 points in favor of the Hurricanes. Then the Huskers went to work. Gill completed a long pass to Fryar which took the ball inside the Miami 35 with under 2 minutes to go, then an incomplete pass to Shane Swanson and he also completed a pass to Ricky Simmons down at the Miami 26. After Smith ran for two yards, the Huskers called for their last timeout. On 2nd and 8 from the Miami 24, Gill found a wide open Fryar all alone in the end zone and threw a perfect pass, which Fryar dropped. This play would later be forgotten in the midst of what would come soon after, but it may have taken on a much greater significance in Husker lore had they not eventually scored. On 3rd & 8, Gill dropped the football after Fagan tackled him. Confused, Steinkuhler picked up the ball for a few yards, literally thought that Gill fumbled the ball, but the officials ruled an incomplete pass. Thus, setting up a 4th down and 8 from the Miami 24-yard line with the clock running down inside a minute. Osborne called an option play, which Gill ran to his right, initially keeping the ball and running into the grasp of a Miami defender before pitching the ball at the last second to a streaking Smith, who sprinted in the rest of the way, making the score 31-30 Miami, with the extra point pending.
A successful kick would have tied the score. Instead, Osborne went for the win, and with it, risked everything (the NCAA had not yet introduced overtime for college football; thus, the game could have ended in a tie). Miami's Kenny Calhoun broke up the conversion pass from quarterback Turner Gill to I-back Jeff Smith, leaving the inspired Hurricanes with a 31-30 upset victory over the top-ranked Cornhuskers.
"We were trying to win the game," Osborne said. "I don't think you go for a tie in that case. You try to win the game. We wanted an undefeated season and a clear-cut national championship." A tie would most likely have been enough to give the Huskers the national championship with a 12-0-1 record, since second-ranked Texas also lost earlier in the day to Georgia in the Cotton Bowl Classic and third-ranked Auburn had won unimpressively.
Coincidentally, Osborne had been asked earlier in the week by a reporter if he would ever consider going for two in just such a situation. "I hope it doesn't come up," Osborne said. "I'll be crucified one way or another on that one." When it did occur, Osborne had his mind made up. "I don't think any of our players would be satisfied backing into it with a PAT," Osborne said. "I don't think that's the way to do it."
The game has widely been listed among the most memorable college football games by various sources, including ABC Sports Online's five "classic Orange Bowl moments". An ESPN survey once voted it as the greatest college football game ever played.
The game almost overnight established the University of Miami as a football power, and it would go on to win two more national championships before the end of the decade, under coaches Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson. The school would win a fourth with Erickson in 1991, and would again beat Nebraska for a fifth in 2001 under Larry Coker.
Nebraska coach Tom Osborne eventually would win three national championships of his own (he defeated Miami in the 1995 Orange Bowl for his first), and retire in 1997 as one of the winningest coaches in college football history. But it would be his decision to go for the win, rather than to tie, and his willingness to risk the national championship on one play which has come to define his legacy more than any single achievement.
It has become a textbook case in game theory. A simple extra point conversion would have tied the game and arguably given Nebraska the national championship. Economist Avinash Dixit and Business Strategy Expert Barry Nalebuff argue that Osborne would have had more options had he gone for two earlier in the fourth quarter: "Tom Osborne would have done better to first try the two-point attempt (at the score of 31-23), and then if it succeeded go for the one-point, while if it failed attempt a second two-pointer." 
The game was placed in NCAA Football video games as a "College Classic", challenging players to recreate the ending. The scenario begins with Nebraska with the ball, with the decision to either go for the tie or the win entirely up to the player. Due to the game using modern rules when it was developed, it is entirely possible to take the game into overtime.
- ABC Online Sports, "Classic Orange Bowl Moments: 1984 - Miami 31, Nebraska 30", by Dan O'Sullivan, December 13, 2002.
- Avinash K. Dixit & Barry J. Nalebuff, Thinking Strategically, Norton, New York, 1993, p. 54.