Before the 1983 season, the Canes had never even sniffed the heights they were about to reach. They had two solid seasons under Howard Schnellenberger in 1980 and 1981, as he was in the process of rebuilding a program that had been stuck in mediocrity since their last successful season in 1966. This season, however, Miami had put together a 10-1 record, only losing their first game to Florida before rattling off 10 straight victories. It was already the best season in the history of the Miami program, and they had one more chance to make it even more special by winning a national championship (in front of their home crowd of course).
Going into the game, the Canes were a clear underdog. Their opponent was the 12-0 Nebraska Cornhuskers, a program that already had 2 national championships under their belt. They were lead by one of the most recognizable coaches in the game, Tom Osborne (who would later be named AP National Coach of the Year that season). They had the heisman trophy winner in running back Mike Rozier. They had 5 All-Americans (Rozier, Irving Fryar, Dean Steinkuhler, Turner Gill and Scott Raridon) They were the #1 ranked team in every week of the AP poll that season. A national championship appeared to be a foregone conclusion for the Cornhuskers.
Miami appeared to be a less of a convincing case. Despite having a great season, they were less experienced, being led by a true freshman at quarterback by the name of Bernie Kosar. Their coach had worked under a legend at Alabama, Bear Bryant, but had not reached the same level of success in his own right. The Canes had 1 All-American that season in LB Jay Brophy. On the other hand, the fun thing about football is that a championship is decided by who is better on a single day, and Miami knew that.
The postseason setup in 1984 was much different than it is now, as there was no College Football Playoff, and no BCS. There were 16 bowl games (compared to 40 this past season), and there was no clear game that was guaranteed to yield the national champion. Miami had some help clearing the path for the possibility of ending the season as the top team in the country, as the 2nd ranked Texas Longhorns lost their Cotton Bowl matchup to Georgia, the 3rd ranked Auburn Tigers won a close game to the unranked Michigan Wolverines 9-7, and the 4th ranked Illinois Fighting Illini lost their bowl game to an unranked UCLA Bruins squad. Everything broke for the 5th ranked Hurricanes to leapfrog 4 teams for a national title.
Nebraska was a 10.5 point favorite (which would be huge odds today) as their potent rushing attack helped the Cornhuskers finish as one of the nation’s top offenses, averaging over 52 points per game. Like the present Big-12 conference, Nebraska was also known for having a suspect defense, as well as struggles in the kicking game (more on that later). Miami had the #2 defense in the country, allowing only 9 points per game. Many didn’t see it coming, but the matchup was favorable for the Canes.
Miami stormed out to an early 17-0 lead over the favored Cornhuskers after blocking a field goal and Bernie Kosar throwing 2 TDs to tight end Glenn Dennison. Nebraska then pulled out every trick in the book, including having their DB’s trade jerseys to confuse Kosar (what?) and their trademarked play, the Fumblerooski, in which QB Turner Gill purposefully fumbled the ball and ran toward one sideline while Outland/Lombardi trophy winner Dean Steinkuhler (yes he won the national award for being an offensive AND defensive lineman) picked up the ball and ran towards the other sideline and down the field for a touchdown. (By the way both of those plays sound like the most ridiculous ideas ever if you consider someone trying them today, mainly because both would now be illegal). Adding in two turnovers by the Canes, Nebraska would tie the game at 17 apiece. Miami would catch a few breaks, as Nebraska’s Heisman-winning running back would leave the game with an injury, Nebraska would miss another field goal, and Gill would fumble the ball at Miami’s 1-yard line to leave valuable points on the board.
Miami opened a 31-17 lead behind rushing touchdowns from Alonzo Highsmith and Albert Bentley, but Nebraska would come storming back in the 4th quarter, first taking advantage of a 3-and-out by Miami by driving the ball right back down the field, ending in a 1-yard touchdown run. Then with under 2 minutes to go, Nebraska found themselves inside the Miami 25 down 7. After stalling out for 3 plays, including Irving Fryar dropping a wide open pass in the endzone, Nebraska called an option play on 4th and 8, which resulted in a 24-yard touchdown down the right sideline (It would later be discovered that the option on this play was an illegal forward pass, but the play stood as called). With the score 31-30 in favor of Miami, Coach Tom Osborne made one of the most iconic calls in college football history, deciding to go for 2 and the national title. There was no overtime in 1984, so the possibilities were either kick the extra point and leave with a tie, likely resulting in Nebraska still being named national champs, go for 2 and convert, securing a national time and a truly undefeated season, or go for 2 and not convert, resulting in no national title or undefeated season. Not being satisfied with having a tie on his record, Coach Osborne opted for the risky choice. He called a quick rollout to the right, where QB Turner Gill tried to hit a quick out route to running back Jeff Smith, only for Miami’s Kenny Calhoun to get a diving deflection which erased Nebraska’s national championship dreams, while beginning Miami’s national championship legacy.
The 1984 Orange Bowl has been considered one of the most memorable college football games period, but it will definitely go down as one of the Miami Hurricanes Games We Love.