MIAMI -- It wasn't the runaway that almost everyone expected, but Bobby Bowden and top-ranked Florida State probably won their first national championship last night.
Freshman Scott Bentley, whom Florida State recruited to kick it to a title, might have done just that, beating No. 2 Nebraska,
18-16, in the Orange Bowl on a 22-yard field goal with 21 seconds left, less than a minute after Byron Bennett had set off a wild Nebraska celebration with a 27-yard field goal. Bentley's four field goals tied an Orange Bowl record.
But Florida State had to survive a last-second field goal attempt by Byron Bennett, who missed from 45 yards on the final play of the game.
On a night when the Seminoles' high-powered attack, led by Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward, was stymied by Nebraska's aggressive defense, Bentley provided much of the offense.
A strange call in the first quarter seemed to set the first-half tone for the Seminoles, who had the momentum when they drove to the Nebraska 11 on their second possession and quickly lost it when a cross-field first-down pass from Ward to fullback William Floyd produced a 7-yard loss and a lot of quizzical looks throughout the stadium.
From there, Florida State had lots of long-yardage situations and Ward had little of the magic he possessed during his Heisman Trophy season. The Cornhuskers, who have worked to improve their pass rush, put tremendous pressure on Ward. Especially All-American linebacker Trev Alberts, who despite a brace to protect his dislocated right elbow, sacked the Seminoles quarterback twice in the first half.
After a scoreless first quarter, which produced a total of 67 yards combined, Florida State got on the scoreboard first. A 34-yard field goal by Scott Bentley, who had missed a 47-yard attempt earlier, gave the Seminoles a 3-0 lead with 7:54 left in the first half.
But Nebraska, which had earlier saw an apparent 71-yard touchdown on a punt return by Corey Dixon called back by an illegal (and from the television replays, phantom) block, immediately went ahead on one big play and one lucky one by sophomore quarterback Tommie Frazier.
The big play came when Frazier, on third-and-11 from the Florida State 40, found backup wide receiver Clester Johnson for a 25-yard gain. The lucky one came on second-and-nine from the Seminoles' 34, when a pass from Frazier intended for Johnson was tipped by strong safety Devin Bush into the waiting hands of another backup receiver, Randy Baul, who raced the final 20 yards for a touchdown.
After Florida State stopped Nebraska cold on its next series -- the Cornhuskers had started from the Seminoles' 49 following a poor punt by Sean Liss -- Ward seemed to come out of his first-half slumber. A 22-yard pass to Kez McCorvey, a 23-yard -- by Ward himself and a roughing-the-passer call against Nebraska's Kevin Raemakers helped put the ball at the Nebraska 8 with a little over a minute left in the half.
But a pass from Ward to McCorvey went slightly behind Florida State's top receiver, who couldn't control it. Ward then hit Tamarick Vanover for a 5-yard gain to the 3, but the drive stalled when Ward was flushed out of the pocket again and was dropped for a 2-yard loss. Bentley then hit a 25-yard field goal with 22 seconds left to pull the Seminoles within one, 7-6.
The Cornhuskers caused a little excitement when Damon JTC Benning returned the ensuing kickoff 37 yards to the Florida State 47 and was tackled by Bentley. Nebraska couldn't get any further, and the half ended as Frazier was intercepted by Florida State cornerback Clifton Abraham.
Trailing at halftime for only the second time all season -- the other time was during its 31-24 defeat at Notre Dame -- Florida State immediately did what it couldn't do in the first half: score a touchdown. The Seminoles went 67 yards in six plays, with a 41-yard pass from Ward to Kevin Knox as the highlight. Fullback William Floyd's 1-yard dive gave Florida State a 12-7 lead. A two-point conversion failed.
Despite the fact that Nebraska continued to put pressure on Ward, Florida State managed to control the ball and the clock. A drive that began at the Seminoles' 12 was helped by a 34-yard gain by Floyd and fell short when Ward was sacked for the fifth time. It still produced a 39-yard field goal by Bentley for a 15-7 Florida State lead with three minutes left in the third quarter.
But the Cornhuskers, whose offense took a major blow when I-back Calvin Jones went out in the second quarter with a shoulder injury, didn't fold. Behind the play of Frazier, Nebraska marched right back. Frazier hit Corey Dixon on two key passes, a third-down pass for 15 yards to the Florida State 46, followed by a 26-yarder to the Seminoles' 12 as the third quarter ended.
The fourth quarter began with freshman Lawrence Phillips, one of several I-backs used in place of Jones, running untouched through the Florida State defense for a touchdown. Going for a two-point conversion in the same end zone that saw the Cornhuskers fall short of Miami here 10 years ago, Nebraska failed again as Frazier was stopped by Ken Alexander at the 2-yard line.