The 1994 Orange Bowl featured the #1 and undefeated Nebraska Cornhuskers against the #2 Florida State Seminoles. At that point, it was only the 11th time in college football history that the two top teams were meeting in a bowl game to decide the national title.
Unfortunately, no one gave the Huskers a chance as they entered the game a 17-point underdog. They were expected to go into the game and get destroyed. I remember Lee Corso doing a segment pointing out that the Blackshirt defense didn't stand a chance because of the speed of the Florida State receivers. In the weeks leading up to the game, most of the discussion centered around whether or not Florida State would deserve to be #1 as they had been beaten by Notre Dame earlier in the season (the week after which Notre Dame got upset by Boston College, ruining their chance at being #1). The Cornhuskers were all but forgotten.
I guess you can't entirely blame the pundits for favoring Florida State. Nebraska's efforts against Florida teams weren't exactly stellar at that point in time.
‘92 - Miami 22, Nebraska 0, Orange Bowl
‘93 - Florida State 27, Nebraska 14, Orange Bowl
‘90 - Florida State 41, Nebraska 17, Fiesta Bowl
‘88 - Florida State 31, Nebraska 28, Fiesta Bowl
Between 1980 and 1994, Nebraska met Florida State eight times, winning only twice, both wins coming in the comfortable confines of Memorial Stadium in Lincoln.
But 17-point underdogs?
It turned out to be one helluva game. At the end of the first half, Nebraska lead 7-6, with Reggie Baul scoring on a tipped touchdown pass and Florida State kicker Scott Bentley making two field goals. The second half was a see-saw battle. In the third quarter, Florida State fullback William "Bar None" Floyd fumbled on the one-yard line, but the referees ruled the play a touchdown. Replays showed the apparent fumble before Floyd crossed the goal line. Florida State went for two, but the conversion failed, leaving the Seminoles with a 12-7 lead. Bentley later added another field goal to make it 15-7.
Nebraska came back in the fourth, with Lawrence Phillips scoring on a 12-yard run, after which a two-point conversion failed, leaving the lead for the 'Noles at 15-13. The Husker defense held, but the offense couldn't punch the ball into the end zone and had to settle for a short Byron Bennet field goal with 1:18 left to give Nebraska a 16-15 lead.
Nebraska's kick went out of bounds, giving the 'Noles good field position. Charlie Ward lead the "fast-break offense" down the field in a haste - all the way to the three-yard line, aided by a personal foul penalty, and Bentley hit a 10-yard field goal to put the Seminoles up 18-16 with 22 seconds left. The ‘Noles were called for excessive celebration, giving the Huskers the ball on the 43-yard line on the ensuing kickoff.
Then Tommie "he can't pass" Frazier hit Reggie Baul for a 29-yard gain to the 28 yard line, or somewhere thereabouts. Everyone thought the game was over as the clock showed zero, people mobbed the field and Bowden got his Gatorade bath. However, the referees ruled that Baul had gone down with one second left. They then proceeded to march the ball six yards closer to the goal line than they'd marked it previously, leaving Bennet one second with which to hit a 45-yard field goal. Bennet had to rush the kick because of pressure, and it sailed wide left, giving the Seminoles the victory and Bobby Bowden his first-ever national title.
The game was incredible, so much that it deserves mention as one of the better national title games ever played, but you won't find it on those types of lists. The reason for that is it has to be the worst-officiated big game ever played.
Corey Dixon's 71-yard punt return in the first half, which you can see here, was called back for a phantom push in the back. Floyd's fumble was another call that went the Seminoles' way, even though replays showed a different story. . Another point of contention were the personal foul calls against Nebraska. Apparently it was okay for Frazier to get blasted when he was running the ball, but not okay to hit Charlie Ward if he was throwing it. I had a conversation with a Nebraska player afterwards who said the loss was tougher to take because the during the TV timeouts the referees were constantly talking and joking with the Florida State players.
I watched the game at my in-laws. Right before Bennett's unfortunate miss, I turned to Mrs Corn Nation and said "You know, it really doesn't matter that much if he makes it", to which she responded "you're drunk".
I wasn't upset by the ending. The Huskers had entered the game 17-point underdogs and had come within a last second of winning the national title against a stacked deck. Trev Alberts harassed Heisman winner Charlie Ward all night, sacking him three times, which apparently convinced him that it would be a better idea to later enter the NBA than the NFL. The Huskers were not the team that everyone was making fun of just a few hours before. They had outplayed the vaunted Seminoles, and everyone knew it. The Huskers just didn't win the game.
The Huskers entered the next season with the theme "Unfinished Business". Throughout spring practice and into the fall, the scoreboard at Memorial was set to 1:18 in the fourth quarter, with the scoring showing 16-15 Nebraska. Clearly Nebraska felt it still had something to prove, which the Huskers did for the next five years as Tom Osborne won three national titles.
If the number 17 comes up in a conversation about Nebraska football, this game is the first thing that comes to mind. If it were the insult of the point spread and the screw job of a game that lead to a 60-3 record over the next five seasons, then the insult wasn't such a bad thing after all.