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.
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)….with a team led by “Triplets” in 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 Cornhuskers of 1983 were a formidable outfit….who averaged 52 points a game….as they did have some notable weaknesses….like having a fairly mediocre defense that was vulnerable to the pass….especially across the middle of the field….owing to the fact the Big Eight Conference was dominated by run-oriented offenses….plus they also had a fairly average kicking game…. when both of these weaknesses would haunt the Cornhuskers on this night.
Coach Howard Schnellenberger brought his # 5 ranked Miami Hurricanes into this game as the quiet achiever after having been blown out 28-3 by Florida in their opening game of the season….nevertheless, they had won 10 straight games following their opening defeat….as they were led by freshman QB Bernie Kosar….who had completed 61.5 percent of his passes for 2,328 yards and 15 touchdowns and had started all 11 games….while Miami had the 2nd best defense 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….then # 3 ranked Auburn Tigers squeaked out a last second 9-7 win over unranked Michigan in the 1984 Sugar Bowl in the last few seconds….while # 4 Illinois fell to unranked UCLA 45-9 in the 1984 Rose Bowl…..which gave Miami the chance to leapfrog to No. 1, should they defeat the Cornhuskers….as this Orange Bowl game sets up as the National Championship game for the 1983 college football season.
Nebraska came into the game as a 10 ½-point favorite…. and moved down the field rather easily on their opening drive….but the Hurricanes got an early lift when they forced Nebraska to attempt a field-goal…. which they then blocked….thus providing a huge early momentum swing….and they capitalized very quickly as Kosar completed two touchdown passes to Glenn Dennison….which along with a 45-yard Jeff Davis field goal…..gave Miami a 17–0 lead at the end of one quarter.
Nebraska didn’t panic….so early in the second quarter….Coach Osborne reached into his bag of tricks in an attempt to confuse Kosar….he switched jerseys between defensive backs Dave Burke and Mike McCashland….resulting in Burke playing in the free safety position and McCashland playing in the right cornerback position….as Burke intercepted a pass from Kosar at the Nebraska 26. Then, on the 12th play of a 74-yard touchdown drive….Osborne again ran a trick play known as the fumblerooski….when facing a 3rd and 5 situation….Nebraska QB Gill intentionally “fumbled” the snap from center by effectively setting it on the turf….then faking the ball to the fullback Mark Schellen….who, alongside Gill, Rozier and TE Monte Engebritson, ran right but without the ball….then the ball was picked up by All-American offensive guard and Outland Trophy/Lombardi Award winner 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 64-yard 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 their own 23-yard line and Nebraska added three points to tie score at 17-17 to begin the third quarter. And it was at this point that Miami again decided not to cooperate….after two long touchdown drives of 75 and 73 yards took the score to 31-17…. behind the passing of Kosar and the running of backs Alonzo Highsmith and Albert Bentley, who each contributed rushing touchdowns to cap each drive….followed by Huskers RB Rozier leaving the game with an injured ankle after having rushed for 147 yards on 25 carries.
Nebraska had many opportunities to score without Rozier. Late in the third 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 and ran for 40-yards before fumbling at the Miami 1-yard line….which Miami eventually recovered….then again early in the 4th quarter….after Miami went three and out from their own end zone….Gill throws the ball to Scott Kimball at the end zone….but Rodney Bellinger broke up the pass….then after Miami’s 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 fourth quarter on a 75-yard drive….which brought the score back to 31–24. Then Nebraska caught a break….when Miami kicker Davis missed a 42-yard field goal attempt that would have made the margin 10 points in favor of the Hurricanes ….that’s when 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 a completed pass to Ricky Simmons down at the Miami 26….and 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….when on 3rd down and 8….Gill seemed to fumble the ball…but the officials ruled it an incompletes 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 with Miami in the lead.
A successful kick would have tied the score….but instead, Osborne went for the win….which risked everything….as Miami’s Kenny Calhoun broke up the conversion pass from QB 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 their 3rd national championship with a 12-0-1 record….their 1st for Tom Osborne, Nebraska coach Tom Osborne eventually would win three national championships of his own….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.
The game has widely been listed among the most memorable college football games by various sources to include ABC Sports five “classic Orange Bowl moments”.….while an ESPN survey once voted it as the greatest college football game ever played.
This video of the 4th Quarter of this incredible 1984 Orange Bowl game is MUST SEE TV for any college football fan.