Years from now, what people will remember about the 1984 Orange Bowl game is The Big Decision. The critical one that Nebraska faced in the last minute; the one on which a perfect season and undisputed national championship hinged; and the one that the University of Miami ultimately used to its own advantage in upsetting the nation's top-ranked team.
Actually, the way Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne saw it, there was really no choice. The vaunted Cornhuskers had to go for two points after a touchdown cut the University of Miami's lead to 31-30 with 48 seconds left.
''I don't think our players or anybody would have been satisfied if we backed in (as national champions) by kicking the point,'' said Osborne. ''That's not the way the game is played. You can't go for a tie.'' Particularly, it might be added, after the Big Red had made two spectacular comebacks from 17-0 and 31-17 deficits.
Going boldly for the win, Nebraska just missed the conversion. At the last split second, Miami defensive back Ken Calhoun deflected a pass away from Jeff Smith, who had replaced injured Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier in the third quarter. An ovation that probably could be heard in Key West rocked the night. The hometown Hurricanes had put the perfect ribbon on the Orange Bowl's silver anniversary game, ending the nation's longest winning streak at 22 games in a classic.
With all the other bowl results already in, the victory enabled Miami to claim its first national championship - and both wire services made it official Tuesday when they raised the 'Canes to No. 1 in their final polls.
No. 4 Miami, after all, had toppled a Goliath-like opponent that many observers considered a cinch to join the pantheon of the all-time great college teams. The 'Huskers averaged 52 points a game, held the No. 1 ranking through the season, and rolled up 12 straight wins. Knocking off this giant, then, was worthy of a major promotion. Especially considering the way Miami won, taking it to the bigger Cornhuskers behind freshman quarterback Bernie Kosar from the start and playing with incredible poise and heart.
Auburn, however, put in its own bid for the top national honor when it squeezed past Michigan 9-7 in Monday night's other silver birthday party at the Sugar Bowl. The War Eagles, who started the day No. 3, felt their victory, coupled with upsets of No. 1 Nebraska and No. 2 Texas, made them the heirs apparent to the throne.
If only it were so simple. It's not, though, mainly because pollsters judge the relative merits of team performance before casting their votes. And Auburn's Sugar Bowl defeat over No. 8 Michigan, while sweet, was not as convincing as it might have been.
Defenses held the upper hand, and Auburn's Wishbone attack never did cross the goal line, scoring all its points on field goals in the second half. The last of these, kicked from 19 yards away with 27 seconds left, provided a dramatic climax, but was not the most impressive way to beat the Big Ten's runner-up team.
The Cotton Bowl in Dallas produced a similarly low-scoring, yet suspenseful game, which an opportunistic Georgia won over Texas 10-9. The Bulldogs spent most of the day running into a burnt orange wall disguised as the Longhorn defense, a notoriously stingy group. Georgia, however, hung in there and eventually capitalized on a Texas miscue late in the fourth quarter.
Trailing 7-3, Georgia recovered a fumbled punt at the Texas 23-yard line. Then, in keeping with recent Cotton Bowl history, a resourceful quarterback (John Lastinger) won the day, and the ball game basically, by racing 17 yards for the TD that set up the winning conversion.
The Fiesta Bowl kept pace with its own spate of 11th-hour heroics. Pittsburgh took a 23-21 lead on Snuffy Everett's 37-yard field goal with 2:39 to go, but Ohio State regained the lead on a picture perfect 39-yard TD pass with 39 seconds left. Undaunted, the Panthers moved downfield, only to lose QB John Congemi to injury deep in Buckeye territory, where the game ended.
The close finishes ran out in Pasadena, where Big Ten champion Illinois came out stone cold on the warmest day in Rose Bowl history. The Illini could do no right, UCLA no wrong, a situation that resulted in a shockingly lopsided 45-9 outcome. The loss was the Big Ten's 13th in the last 15 Rose Bowls. It came against a team that began the season slowly, but was vastly better than a 6-4-1 record indicated. Illinois, on the other hand, may not have been as good its No. 5 ranking and 11-1 record, but they the Illini were certainly better than what they showed in Pasadena.
There was little solace for the disheartened losers, yet Coach Mike White maintained a sense of humor when he called a scoreboard problem the highlight of his team's long day's journey into night. College football bowl results Independence Bowl atShreveport, La. Air Force 9, Mississippi 3 California Bowl at Fresno, Calif. N. Illinois 20, Fullerton State 13 Citrus Bowl atOrlando, Fla. Tennessee 30, Maryland 23 Hall of Fame Bowl at Birmingham, Ala. West Virginia 20, Kentucky 16 Holiday Bowl at San Diego Brigham Young 21, Missouri 17 Sun Bowl at ElPaso, Texas Alabama 28, SMU 7 Aloha Bowl at Honolulu Penn State 13, Washington 10 Liberty Bowl at Memphis Notre Dame 19, Boston College 18 Peach Bowl at Atlanta Florida State 28, North Carolina 3 Gator Bowl at Jacksonville, Fla. Florida 14, Iowa 6 Bluebonnet Bowl at Houston Oklahoma State 24, Baylor 14 Fiesta Bowl at Tempe, Ariz. Ohio State 28, Pittsburgh 23 Cotton Bowl at Dallas Georgia 10, Texas 9 Rose Bowl at Pasadena, Calif. UCLA 45, Illinois 9 Sugar Bowl at New Orleans Auburn 9, Michigan 7 Orange Bowl at Miami Miami 31, Nebraska 30