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The night Miami shocked the football world with this Orange Bowl classic

Howard Schnellenberger, coach of the national champion UM Hurricanes, celebrates the win against Nebraska on Jan. 2, 1984.
Howard Schnellenberger, coach of the national champion UM Hurricanes, celebrates the win against Nebraska on Jan. 2, 1984. HERALD FILE

The teams for this year’s Orange Bowl game are arriving in South Florida.

No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Oklahoma will take the field at Hard Rock Stadium Saturday night in a playoff game toward the national championship.

More than three decades ago, another No. 1 came to town, expecting to win it all.

Nebraska powered into the old Orange Bowl stadium in Little Havana with an undefeated record. Their only obstacle to the national championship: the upstart University of Miami Hurricanes, who hadn’t lost since a season-opening defeat to the Florida Gators.

It was Jan. 2, 1984, the 50th Orange Bowl game.

And it was a classic.

Miami was the visiting team in its own stadium. The quarterback was a freshman.

Few expected this.

Let’s take a trip through the Miami Herald archives to relive the milestone.

By Christine Brennan, Published Jan. 3, 1984:

They’ve been dreaming about the national championship at the University of Miami since Coach Howard Schnellenberger arrived five years ago.

Now they can stop dreaming.

And pinch themselves.

Miami 31, Nebraska 30.

Going into Monday night’s 50th Orange Bowl Classic, Nebraska was considered one of the greatest college football teams ever. Miami was not.

But, by barely surviving a furious two-touchdown rally in the final five minutes and stopping a two-point conversion attempt with 48 seconds to go, the Hurricanes almost certainly won the national title all but conceded to Nebraska.

Because No. 1 Nebraska (12-1) lost for the first time in 16 months, and because No. 2 Texas lost, 10-9, to Georgia in the Cotton Bowl, No. 5 Miami (11-1) is expected to be voted Associated Press national champion today at 6:30 p.m.

Even though No. 3 Auburn beat Michigan, 9-7, in the Sugar Bowl, a Herald poll of AP voters indicated a Miami victory over Nebraska, coupled with a Texas loss, would be enough to give the Hurricanes their first national football title.

The United Press International coaches’ poll also will be released at 6:30 p.m. Miami was ranked fourth by UPI.

“It’s up to the polls,” said UM quarterback Bernie Kosar, who completed 19 of 35 passes for 300 yards -- an Orange Bowl Classic record for yardage — and two touchdowns. “But in my heart,” he said, “we’re No. 1.”

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None of this poll talk would be possible were it not for Nebraska’s decision to go for a two-point conversion to win the game in the final moments. The gamble came after reserve I-back Jeff Smith’s 24-yard TD run on fourth down, the second of his two fourth-quarter scores.

Starting from the left hash mark, Cornhusker quarterback Turner Gill turned to his right and fired to Smith, who had replaced Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier when he twisted his left ankle and left the game in the third quarter.

The pass to Smith glanced off his fingertips as UM rover Kenny Calhoun tipped it from behind. The ball bounced harmlessly into the end zone.

All that was left was an onside kick and two easy snaps, and UM was victorious. It may have been the best bowl game ever for a national championship. And certainly it was one of the most startling upsets in bowl history. It came after UM took a 17-0 lead and then let Nebraska tie, 17-17, before Miami fought back to forge a 31-17 advantage.

The Hurricanes did it in front of the home fans, a crowd of 72,549 that threw beach balls and toilet paper to celebrate the biggest college football game the OB had ever seen.

“This is a love affair with Miami that began five years ago,” Schnellenberger said. “The fulfillment of a dream ... no, the beginning of a dream. Our offense came back to life in the second half. There is no question in anyone’s mind who is No. 1.”

Amazingly, the first quarter was Miami’s best of the season. Even lowly Duke played a tougher first 15 minutes against UM, losing by only 14 points, 21-7.

This time the score was Miami 17, Nebraska 0.

The crowd gave the Hurricanes a standing ovation.

Here’s why: The Hurricanes won the toss and decided to kick off -- as they often have this season — giving the ball to the greatest college offense of all time.

It looked like the greatest college offense of all time for three plays. On the first, Gill threw to Irving Fryar for a gain of five.

UM linebacker Ken Sisk, the Hurricanes’ leading tackler, hurt his left knee on the tackle and did not return to the game.

The next two plays were Rozier fast-forward, first for 27 yards, then 18.

Then, nothing. Nebraska gained two yards to the UM 28 on the next three plays. Scott Livingston, who had made two of just three field-goal attempts this year, tried a 45-yarder. It was low, tackle Kevin Fagan blocked it, and tackle Fred Robinson recovered at the Miami 43.

The Hurricanes were in business. Kosar immediately stepped back, took his time and fired 23 yards to Stanley Shakespeare cutting between defenders.

From the Nebraska 34, Keith Griffin ran for 11. Then Kosar found Shakespeare again, this time for 22 yards to the one.

It took Miami three tries to score. On third and goal from the two, Kosar faked to Bentley and threw to Glenn Dennison in the right corner of the end zone.

Cornerback Dave Burke — wearing No. 2, which usually is worn by monster back Mike McCashland — dived for the ball, but it appeared to go through his hands and into Dennison’s for the TD.

After a delay-of-game penalty, Jeff Davis added the extra point with the clock showing 9:18.

Two minutes later, UM had the ball back after a Cornhusker punt. From the Miami 31 this time, Kosar completed a 12-yard pass to Eddie Brown to the Miami 45 on third and eight.

Bentley gained nine on a screen to the Nebraska 46 before one of UM’s several freshmen, Alonzo Highsmith, ran for 18 on a draw.

Three Kosar incompletions forced Davis to kick a 45-yard field goal, his longest of the season. UM led, 10-0, with a little more than 10 minutes gone in the game.

It soon was 17-0. Nebraska drove to the UM 40, when on third and 11, Gill threw into the middle. No one was close — except linebacker Jack Fernandez, who replaced Sisk and already had been credited with three tackles.

Fernandez batted the pass into the air with his right hand and caught it when it came down, and UM had the ball at its 35.

UM marched down the field in four plays. First, Bentley gained 15 up the middle. Then Kosar threw a perfect pass to Brown over the middle, who ran through everyone into the end zone. But Shakespeare was called for clipping at the 16 and Miami moved back to the 31.

Highsmith took a pitch nine yards to the 22. Then, finally, Kosar fired to Dennison on a deep post pattern, and he ran into the end zone with defenders trailing. Boom — 17-0. And there still were 68 seconds remaining in the first quarter.

The momentum continued to stick with the Hurricanes. Livingston, who never had to work this hard, was forced to punt from his 38. Brown took it on the 14 and ran right back down the right side to the UM 38.

Fullback Mark Schellen made the TD-saving stop, forcing Brown out of bounds. It also may have saved the game for the Cornhuskers.

Two plays later, Kosar was trying to hit Brown low at the 26, but Burke stepped in front of him and intercepted.

The crowd grew progressively quieter as the Cornhuskers embarked on one of their patented marches. Gill and Co. kept the ball on the ground all the way. Literally.

Facing a third-and-five call at the UM 19, Gill leaned into the huddle and called the school’s favorite trick play — Fumblerooski.

He let the ball slip off his fingers and fall to the ground. Right guard Dean Steinkuhler, the Outland and Lombardi trophy winner, scooped it up and ran into the end zone, carrying Willie Martinez the final few yards.

Miami suffered three delay-of-game penalties on its next drive as Kosar tried to audible, and Rick Tuten came in for his first punt with just 6:45 left in the half.

The 40-yard boot to the Nebraska 36 was a prelude to another Cornhusker TD. Nebraska kept it on the ground again except for a 22-yard pass from Gill to Fryar to the 25.

Seven plays later, Gill sneaked over from the one, and Nebraska had closed to 17-14.

The second half started out in disaster for UM. After a clip on the runback of the kickoff, UM started from its nine.

Keith Griffin ran around right end to the 23, but when Mike Keeler hit him, he dropped the ball and Burke recovered near the sideline.

Miami’s defense, led by cornerback Rodney Bellinger, allowed only six yards, and forced a 34-yard field goal by Livingston. The score was tied at 17 with 13:09 left in the third quarter.

But UM, far from dead, reeled off two long drives to go back in front by 14.

After Kosar found Brown for a 20-yard gain on second down, the Hurricanes mixed runs by Bentley and Highsmith with Kosar passes to the backs to move 75 yards in nine plays.

Highsmith scored his first TD of the season on a dive over the line from the one with 9:37 remaining.

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The Unievrsity of Miami defeats Nebraska in the 50th Orange Bowl on Jan. 2, 1984. file file BOWL00 1980S MILLENNIUM FIL

The biggest Orange Bowl upsets:

1944: LSU 19, Texas A&M 14 — The Aggies had beaten LSU, 28-13, during the regular season, and that was when the Tigers’ star, Steve Van Buren, was healthy. Van Buren was nursing an injured ankle for the Orange Bowl Classic, but by the end of the game it was the Aggies who were hurting. Van Buren ran for 172 yards, scored two TDs, threw a TD pass, punted, kicked off and kicked an extra point.

1950: Santa Clara 21, Kentucky 13 — The Wildcats (9-2) were overwhelming favorites to hand Coach Bear Bryant his first bowl victory. But while Santa Clara (7-2-1) was undergoing light workouts in humid South Florida, Bear Bryant was pushing his players through a boot-camp regimen in Cocoa Beach. “I never really found out the best way to prepare a team for a bowl,” Bryant later said, “but that game taught me how not to.”

1954: Oklahoma 7, Maryland 0 — The Terrapins entered the game with a No. 1 ranking after allowing opponents just 84 yards per game, but Oklahoma’s Larry Grigg gained 89 himself and the Sooners totaled 217. Even with first and goal at the three, Maryland couldn’t get in the end zone on three tries and then missed a field goal in suffering their first shutout in 51 games.

1965: Texas 21, Alabama 17 — The Crimson Tide, led by All- American quarterback Joe Namath, entered the game ranked No. 1. But the Longhorns took a 21-7 halftime lead and held on for the victory. The key play came with six minutes remaining: Alabama had the ball on fourth down at the Texas one-yard line. Namath tried to sneak over the goal line but was repelled by Tommy Nobis, Glen Underwood and Diron Talbert. Alabama suffered its first loss in four Orange Bowl Classics.

975: Notre Dame 13, Alabama 11 — Alabama, No. 2 entering the game, was bidding for a national championship, but the Fighting Irish, ranked ninth, prevailed in the last game coached by Ara Parseghian. Notre Dame almost squandered a 13-3 lead, but Reggie Barnett of the Irish intercepted a pass from Richard Todd to kill a final ‘Bama drive.

1978: Arkansas 31, Oklahoma 6 — The Sooners were No. 2 and had a clear shot at the national title--all they had to do was beat the No. 6 Razorbacks. That was expected to be easy, because just days before the game Arkansas Coach Lou Holtz had suspended three members of his offensive backfield for dormitory infractions. But second-stringer Roland Sales rushed for 205 yards to lead the upset by the Hogs.

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UM quarterback, Bernie Kosar talks with coaches during the 1984 Orange Bowl game. Joe Rimkus Jr./Herald File

By Edwin Pope, published Jan. 3, 1984:

Reeling and rolling between chaos and conquest all the desperate night in the 50th Orange Bowl Classic, Miami’s Hurricanes shook up and shook down Nebraska, 31-30, for the mythical national championship.

Thus ended the sensational Saturnalia of Coach Howard Schnellenberger’s Team from Nowhere.

Pollsters can only vote them America’s best after second- rated Texas lost to Georgia, 10-9, in the Sugar Bowl.

Thousands of spectators poured past police into the middle of the cheer-racked bowl to celebrate the greatest moment in state college football history and South Florida’s biggest since the Dolphins finished out their Perfect Season a decade ago.

Schnellenberger was there for that one, too, then as a Don Shula assistant. But that one came 3,000 miles away, in blase Los Angeles. This one burst right upon Miami in frantic circumstances that made the Dolphins’ journey look like a limousine drive to the corner.

No. 1-rated Nebraska finally lost because Jeff Smith couldn’t hang onto Turner Gill’s pass on an attempted two-point conversion after the Cornhuskers went 74 yards to score on Smith’s 24-yard run with only 48 seconds left.

But part of why Smith couldn’t hang onto the conversion pass was pressure applied by Kenny Calhoun.

That was the story all this heaving, hammering, roller-coaster of a showdown night.

Miami stabbing in to score. Then mounting desperate defenses to stop the supposedly unstoppable crimson hordes from the Big Eight.

It was Bernie Kosar, the freshman phenomenon who passed for an Orange Bowl Classic record 300 yards and two touchdowns to Glenn Dennison. It was Kosar, the 3.4-average student who surveys defenses like textbooks, coming back from bafflement and bafflement, and finally holding fast under the heat of constantly shifting Cornhusker defenses. Kosar sidearming the ball out of crises, going long, going short, hitting Nebraska where Miami knew it had to hurt them — in the secondary.

It was 5-9 Rodney Bellinger, the once-unwanted little man from Coral Gables High, hitting the deck more often than Floyd Patterson in his heavyweight heyday. Bellinger rising and going back to battle when it seemed nothing would slow the inexorable Nebreaska attack, even when Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier went out at the end of three quarters with an injury.

It was Fred Robinson, a defensive tackle, racing 35 yards downfield to pick up a fumble that might have won for the Cornhuskers.

And Jacinto Fernandez going in for heartbroken Ken Sisk when that prime linebacker was injured on the first series, and bulling into Nebraska’s inexhaustible stable of runners time after time.

It was Alonzo Highsmith, a freshman who spent most of the season in limbo, running like a veteran.

It was Eddie Brown making impossible catches. And so many, many more that it will take days to untangle the pile of heroes.

It was UM coming back from penalty after penalty, the same way it came from completely out of the top-20 rankings before its 28-3 opening loss to Florida — and even farther out afterward.

It was Hurricanes leaping to a bench in front of the South Stands and urging their huge part of the 72,549 fans on by waving white towels wildly about their heads.

It was beautiful. A scene that only a miracle can create again, the home team lending grace to Miami’s fine show for half a century by bouncing back when all of it seemed to be draining away tortured piece by tortured piece.

Moments into the second half, a 34-yard Scott Livingston field goal brought Nebraska back to a 17-17 tie.

The game seemed lost there. For the Hurricanes had been manhandled in the second quarter after leaping into a 17-0 lead.

And now they were on the ropes, glassy-eyed, ready for the coup de grace.

They fought it off and fought it to the tallest hill of any Miami team or any other in the state.

Fittingly, the game started so late (44 minutes) and went on so long than even the most famous Nebraskan of all, Johnny Carson, was preempted on national television.

Monday night, in Miami or Nebraska, nobody cared.

The journey that couldn’t happen was over.

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