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Bound For Miami

Big wins over traditional rivals set up a showdown for the national championship: Nebraska vs. Florida State in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1

It was all a trifle anticlimactic, wasn't it? The three biggest college football games of the Thanksgiving weekend were over, and nothing had changed, other than the condition of West Virginia coach Don Nehlen, whose bellyaching reached a crescendo just as the rest of the country was getting over its dyspepsia.

By the time the last leftover drumstick was devoured—after Nebraska sleepwalked past Oklahoma; after Nehlen, the avowed foe of politicking, launched his last, desperate verbal salvo against Bobby Bowden and Florida State; after the Seminoles' Charlie Ward finished dodging Florida Gators and tossing touchdown passes in the Swamp—the top teams in the bowl coalition rankings had not budged. Nebraska (11-0) and Florida State (11-1) remained Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, meaning that on Jan. 1 they will square off in the Orange Bowl for the national championship. Nehlen and his odd-men-out Mountaineers remained stuck at No. 3. They will take their 11-0 record and their indignation to the Cotton or Sugar Bowl and hope for a tie in Miami.

On this holiday weekend devoted to football and gratitude, two groups in particular had reason to be thankful: NBC and Orange Bowl execs. Battle of unbeatens or not, a Nebraska-West Virginia Orange Bowl might have been the first national-championship game ever to get its butt kicked in the Nielsen ratings by reruns of Love Connection.

College football fans, likewise, should be grateful: The best team in the country will play for the title. Believe us, Florida State belongs in the game. The Seminoles did not beat the No. 7 Gators in the Swamp, as Florida Field is called, by accident. Nor did they finish their gantlet of a season (seven of their opponents are bowl bound) with only one defeat just because Bobby Bowden has a nice personality.

That had been the contention of some of Bowden's colleagues. When the Seminoles were dropped just one spot in the bowl coalition rankings after they lost to Notre Dame on Nov. 13, critics charged that the writers who vote in the Associated Press poll, which in turn affects the bowl coalition rankings, had given the affable Bowden a break. As if to make up for that, on Sunday the coaches who vote in the USA Today/CNN poll, the other component in the rankings, dropped Florida State to third place behind West Virginia—even though the Seminoles had just beaten a higher-ranked team. "All of a sudden, in the last three or four years," said Iowa State coach Jim Walden, "we've gotten into a 'Let's do it for Bobby Bowden' mentality. I'll be glad when he finally wins [the championship], so then we can go on to something else."

Nehlen picked up where Walden left off. He was all over the sports news last week, pointing out that Bowden "didn't get it done" against the Irish and warning that the exclusion of his Mountaineers from the title game would be "the biggest misjustice in the world."

Way to keep things in perspective, Coach.

Nehlen's stump speech—for that's what it had become—was almost irrelevant. Early in the fourth quarter of last Friday's game in Chestnut Hill, Mass., West Virginia trailed Boston College 14-3. Despite dominating the Mountaineers, the Eagles had kept the score close by giving the ball away three times.

Three times and counting. With less than three minutes to play, Boston College still led 14-9. It also had the ball, second-and-five, on the Mountaineer 27. The game was as good as won. Visions of Bourbon Street danced in the Eagles' heads, for they were Sugar Bowl bound.

Oops. Will the Carquest Bowl suffice? Mountaineer defensive end Steve Perkins pried the ball from Eagle backup fullback David Green, and West Virginia quarterback Darren Studstill marched the Mountaineers to a touchdown, a two-point conversion and a 17-14 victory.

Nehlen then blessed reporters with this truly divine scoop: "To have the opportunity to play for the national championship," he said, "the good Lord says you've got to do every single thing [right] for 11 straight weeks."

Wonder where in the Bible it says that. The Book of Numbers, perhaps?

Even with friends in high places, Nehlen could not swing enough coalition votes for the Mountaineers to leapfrog over Florida State, whose gut-check win in Gainesville last Saturday concluded a two-week period in which the Seminoles answered several questions about themselves.

After Florida State's loss to the Irish, those close to the team wondered, Would the Seminoles go in the tank? There was a precedent. After dropping out of the '91 national-championship hunt with a loss to Miami, Florida State had played listlessly in a loss to Florida. Indeed, after this year's defeat by Notre Dame, there were signs of trouble among the Seminoles. Tight end Lonnie Johnson, a senior and captain, issued a warning to wide receiver Kevin Knox, one of the team's more gregarious souls. "Some of the guys on this team laugh and talk right through a game," Johnson says now. "It concerned me a little bit. So I said something."

On the defense, end Derrick Alexander had a heart-to-heart with linebacker Derrick Brooks, who had sat out part of the Notre Dame game with an ankle sprain. Alexander feared Brooks's injuries might be making him gun shy. Says Alexander, "I told him, 'We need you out there.' "

These healthy confrontations led to a therapeutic 62-3 win over North Carolina State, a well-timed drubbing that occurred the same day that Notre Dame lost to Boston College. The Seminoles were back in the chase for No. 1.

Archrival Florida would be their last—and most dangerous—upset threat. The game matched the two top-scoring teams in the nation, the Seminoles averaging 44.1 points per game to Florida's 42.3. The Gators were riding a 23-game winning streak in the Swamp, where they were spurred on by a crowd of 85,507, the largest in state history.

Forget the 33-21 final score. Florida State was at least three touchdowns better than that. Not only did Ward throw four scoring passes, but the Seminoles made five more trips beyond the Florida 15-yard line, which resulted in a pair of field goals.

Florida State led 27-7 as the fourth quarter began. With six minutes to play, it was a six-point game. That's when Ward, on third-and-10 at his own 21, scrambled left, then lofted the ball over Florida linebacker Ed Robinson and into the hands of freshman tailback Warrick Dunn, who sped 79 yards up the sideline to put the game out of reach.

Bowden's capsule description of the victory: "Almost a rout and almost close."

The Seminoles' inconsistency represents the Cornhuskers' brightest ray of hope. But Nebraska's 21-7 win over Oklahoma last Friday ought not to strike fear in the hearts of the Seminoles. Sophomore quarterback Tommie Frazier hardly evoked thoughts of Dan Marino as he completed only five of his 17 passes and Nebraska cobbled together a puny 179 yards of total offense.

Despite the coalition rankings, some Las Vegas oddsmakers have made the Cornhuskers two-touchdown underdogs to the Seminoles. And bookies are not the only Husker bashers. Michael Wilbon of The Washington Post recently wrote that Nebraska is "the second biggest fraud in college football every single solitary season." (Wilbon's No. 1 fraud: Michigan.)

Can't blame the bashers. In losing its last six bowl games, Nebraska has become the Harold Stassen of the postseason.

Can't agree with the bashers, either. These are not the one-dimensional Cornhuskers at whom you have been snickering on New Year's Day. They are, they admit, less talented than many of their predecessors. But this team has lived up to the legend on the T-shirts Nebraska ordered last summer: WE REFUSE TO LOSE. Six times this season Nebraska went into the fourth quarter flirting with defeat. Six times it found a way to win.

Against Oklahoma the Husker offense came out as flat as a day-old glass of cold duck. The defense promptly lost its star player, outside linebacker Trev Alberts. So a legion of unknowns stepped up and made enough plays to save the season.

Gradually—almost reluctantly—coach Tom Osborne has brought Nebraska's offense into the latter half of the 20th century. In the Cornhuskers' last six bowl losses, their opponents usually stopped them on the ground and defied them to throw. Nebraska seldom could. Now Osborne's offense features three-wide-receiver sets, a one-back and a shotgun. Frazier runs the option and throws well enough to keep defenses honest. One of his five completions on Friday was an 11-yard laser to Abdul Muhammad for the game-winning touchdown.

Last spring Nebraska traded in its hoary 5-2 defense for a 4-3 scheme, in essence swapping a cumbersome lineman for a fleet roverback. The new, improved D freed up Alberts to do what he does best: put heat on quarterbacks. Alberts came into the Oklahoma game with 15 sacks, 94 tackles and a certain future in the NFL. On the Sooners' first possession, however, he dislocated his right elbow. He gives himself a 50-50 chance of playing in the Orange Bowl.

The absence of their 6'4", 240-pound sackmeister would further erode Nebraska's chances of upsetting the Seminoles. Remember, though, that Florida State is vulnerable to a well-conceived running attack—Notre Dame demonstrated that. And, as it happens, Nebraska is third in the nation in rushing.

The Cornhuskers last got a crack at the national title in the '84 Orange Bowl. It was at the end of that game, a 31-30 loss to Miami, that Osborne—Mr. Conservative—went for a two-point conversion and the win. A tie would have guaranteed him the title that eludes him to this day.

That galls Alberts more than it does Osborne. The senior captain was hanging around outside the locker room after the Oklahoma game, his right arm in a sling. Would he be able to play in Miami? "I hope so," he said. "I want to win a title for the man who brought me here."

Even if he can't play, Alberts won't worry about Nebraska's defense. "Did you see how we played in the second half?" he said. "Shut 'em out. There wasn't a better defense in the country. That comes from here." He put a hand on his heart. "It comes from 11 guys who refuse to let you score. I don't care what you're ranked, you might not beat us."

That's the strongest statement you can make about the Cornhuskers as they prepare for their Orange Bowl showdown: They might not lose.

What the hell, Nehlen might add, at least they'll be there.



After Florida State stiff-armed Florida, and Nebraska ran away from Oklahoma, Nehlen (top left) found himself out in the cold.



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Muhammad's fourth-quarter TD warmed up Husker fans even as it burned the Sooners.



Ed Hill's game-winning touchdown for West Virginia denied BC a second straight upset.