It’s a battle of two titans from yesteryear, caught in a present-day malaise.
Miami and Nebraska have both managed to turn a respective letter of the alphabet into a national, unmistakable brand of excellence in college football. Although the teams first met in 1951, both schools would rise to an echelon of excellence in the ensuing decades. Nebraska enjoyed success in the Big 8, clashing with Oklahoma in arguably the greatest rivalry of the 1970s.
Then came Miami in the 1980s. As Miami rose to prominence under Howard Schnellenberger, Nebraska continued to excel under Tom Osborne. In the 1984 Orange Bowl, Miami took on Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier and the undefeated "team of the century" Nebraska Cornhuskers. With Irving Fryar, Turner Gill, and a wealth of talent, Nebraska was a huge favorite.
But they hadn’t faced a pro-style passing attack that Howard carried from the Dolphins and instilled into the Miami offense. Bernie Kosar pushed Miami ahead 17-0 in the first half with two touchdown passes to tight end Glenn Dennison. However, Nebraska wouldn’t go away without creating cardiac-arrest-inducing drama. With Rozier sidelined, reserve running back Jeff Smith rushed for over 100 yards, including a touchdown with seconds left on a fourth down option pitch to make the score 31-30. However, Osborne – in arguably the most controversial coaching decisions of his career – went for two points and the win. Gill’s pass to Jeff Smith was knocked away by Miami safety Kenny Calhoun, and the Canes went on to win the school’s first national championship.
The teams met again in the Orange Bowl, following the 1988, 1991, and 1994 seasons. The 1989 Orange Bowl was relatively unnoteworthy, with Notre Dame having already clinched the national championship earlier in the day with a Fiesta Bowl victory. Still, in Jimmy Johnson’s final game at Miami, the Canes dominated, taking a 20-0 lead to the halftime locker room (on the strength of two Steve Walsh to Leonard Conley scoring strikes) and winning 23-3.
The 1992 Orange Bowl set the stage for Miami to win its fourth national championship, which it did by shutting out the Cornhuskers 22-0. Game MVP Larry Smith ran for 144 yards and a touchdown, while the Huskers gained one yard of offense in the first quarter. Pressure was a big reason for Nebraska’s offensive struggles, as the Miami defense sacked QB Keithen McCant 5 times.
Nebraska would find some revenge in the 1995 Orange Bowl, claiming Tom Osborne’s first national championship in the process. Miami, sitting at #3 and out of the national championship picture due to an undefeated Penn State team, stretched out a 17-7 lead in the third quarter after QB Frank Costa found WR Jonathan Harris for a 44-yard touchdown. The fourth quarter belonged to FB Cory Schlesinger and the Nebraska power running attack. Schlesinger ran for touchdowns of 15 and 14 yards in the fourth quarter as Nebraska became just the third team that season to eclipse 20 points against Miami.
Where many in the media labeled the 1983 Nebraska team as the team of the century going into the Orange Bowl matchup with Miami, the 2001 Hurricanes would earn that moniker for themselves in the eyes of many around the nation after throttling the Cornhuskers in the 2002 Rose Bowl 37-14. The Canes buried another Heisman Trophy winner in the Nebraska backfield with all the marbles on the line; this time it was QB Eric Crouch. Miami’s defense, which had forced 45 turnovers during the season, forced three more in the first half. The Canes’ offense responded, as UM put up a 27 spot in the second quarter on the way to an insurmountable 34-0 halftime lead. Although Nebraska scored two touchdowns in the second half, linebacker Jonathan Vilma delivered two brutal hits – on Dahrran Diedrick and Ben Zajicek. It was a microcosm of the dominating performance Miami’s defense put on both the Huskers and the nation that year.
Although the teams faced off last year in Lincoln, the best between these teams is currently in the past, far distant in the wake of success that both programs could only hope for today. Nebraska fans and Miami fans are starved for a winner, someone that can bring their respective programs back to national prominence again.
Will that be evident from Saturday’s game? No, probably not. However, hopefully these teams can give us, for one day, a performance that will find a deserving place in the history of this once-great matchup.