MIAMI -- There was plenty of opportunity to second-guess Nebraska coach Tom Osborne last night. For starting a rusty Tommie Frazier over Brook Berringer against Miami in the Federal Express Orange Bowl.
For the way he yanked both quarterbacks after they had made mistakes. And for Osborne's sometimes questionable play-calling, especially Berringer's goal-line pass that was intercepted early in the fourth quarter.
But there is no reason to second-guess Osborne now. Not after the top-ranked Cornhuskers came back behind a rejuvenated Frazier to beat the third-ranked Hurricanes, 24-17, before a stunned record crowd of 81,753.
Not after the victory had given the much-beleaguered Osborne his elusive first national championship after 22 seasons (which won't be confirmed until the final poll tomorrow) and the Cornhuskers their first since winning back-to-back titles under Bob Devaney in 1970 and 1971.
Two touchdowns by fullback Cory Schlesinger in the final 7:38, ++ as well as three crucial plays by Frazier on those late scoring drives, helped bring Nebraska back from a 17-9 deficit. The Cornhuskers had trailed by as many as 10, 17-7, early in the third quarter.
"I thought our team really had a tremendous resolve," said Osborne, whose then-top-ranked team lost last year's national championship here on a late field goal by Florida State's Scott Bentley. "They promised themselves last year to come back and get the job done."
The victory completed an unbeaten season for Nebraska (13-0) and made today's Rose Bowl showdown between second-ranked Penn State and No. 12 Oregon virtually meaningless. Every other No. 1 team that has won its bowl game has won the national championship. It also completed a remarkable comeback story by Frazier, who was voted the game's MVP.
The junior quarterback, who missed the last two months of the regular season with blood clots in his leg, started last night but was benched in the first quarter after throwing an interception. He gave way to Berringer, who had led the Cornhuskers to seven straight wins after Frazier was hurt.
"I had a feeling that I'd come back in and I was always keeping myself ready," said Frazier, who also was suffering from a bad head cold and appeared shaky until the final two drives.
Frazier returned in the fourth quarter shortly after Berringer's pass from the Miami 4 was intercepted. After Schlesinger scored to trim Miami's lead to 17-15, Frazier hit tight end Eric Alford with a two-point conversion to tie the game.
Then, after getting the ball at his team's 42, Frazier made two key third-down runs: a 25-yard gain on third-and-four from the Cornhuskers' 48 and a 6-yard gain on third-and-three from the 20 that set up Schlesinger's winning score.
"Tommie's a special athlete and can make things happen," said Osborne, who already had taken some heat back in Lincoln for benching Berringer this week. "He really did some special things at the end and I'm glad he did. I felt it was time to put him back in there. It was a gut feeling."
The victory broke a well-publicized streak of seven straight New Year's Day bowl losses for Osborne, including three straight here. The defeat was only the second on its home field for Miami (10-2) since 1985, but also the second this season. The loss also broke the Hurricanes' 24-game night winning streak at the Orange Bowl.
The Hurricanes contributed to their collapse. Aside from the defensive breakdowns down the stretch, Miami also committed a number of penalties to put itself in poor field position, dropped a number of passes and saw its protection falter around quarterback Frank Costa.
"They made the plays and we didn't," said Miami coach Dennis Erickson, who likely will get criticized for playing a tad conservatively with the lead. "They had plenty of opportunities toward the end and they took advantage of them."
Said Frazier: "Their defense was tired, especially their defensive front, which is the key to their team."
After blowing their best chance when a botched punt after an errant snap -- Miami's eighth this year -- and a subsequent penalty gave them the ball near the Miami goal line early in the fourth quarter, the Cornhuskers finally took advantage. The running game, which had been solid most of the night, suddenly became dominant.
"We were a little frustrated," said guard Joel Wilks, recalling Berringer's interception and the eight-point deficit that remained the scoreboard. "We knew we were wearing them out. We kept scratching and pounding it out."
Said Warren Sapp, Miami's All-America defensive tackle who had two sacks: "We were swarming to the ball until the end of the game. And then we didn't make some tackles. You have to make plays to win. They made the plays in the end and we didn't."
The offensive line wasn't the only unit doing some pounding. Though Costa didn't make any turnovers until the very end in finishing 18 of 35 for 248 yards, he eventually couldn't find his receivers.
Big plays had resulted in a 35-yard catch-and-run by Trent Jones that gave the Hurricanes a 10-0 lead and a 44-yard catch-and-run by Jonathan Harris early in the third quarter that pushed Miami out to its 17-7 lead.
"We just made some adjustments, and went more to zone coverage with a little man-to-man thrown in," said Charlie McBride, Nebraska's defensive coordinator. "But every time things went bad for these kids they found a way to come back."
Said outside linebacker Donta Jones, a senior from La Plata, Md.: "All the attention the whole week was on their defense [ranked No. 1 in the country] and our offensive line. We wanted to show that we could play defense because defense wins national championships."
It was the defense that held the Hurricanes to minus-35 yards in the final quarter. But it was Nebraska's offense, after Frazier and Berringer combined for three turnovers, that eventually carved out a lead, a victory and ultimately Osborne's name on a national championship trophy.
"I really think national championships are great," said Osborne, who remained as low-key as ever. "I don't know if we won it yet. If they give it to us, I'll be very grateful."
Osborne also will be grateful for one more thing: not to get second-guessed for a while.
SEVEN IS ENOUGH
Before last night's victory over Miami, Nebraska had lost seven consecutive bowl games:
4*Year Bowl .... .... .... .... .... Result
Fiesta .... .... .... .... Florida State 31, Nebraska 28
1989 Orange .... .... .... .... Miami 23, Nebraska 3
1990 Fiesta .... .... .... .... Florida State 41, Nebraska 17
1991 Citrus .... .... .... .... Georgia Tech 45, Nebraska 21
1992 Orange .... .... .... .... Miami 22, Nebraska 0
1993 Orange .... .... .... .... Florida State 27, Nebraska 14
1994 Orange .... .... .... .... Florida State 18, Nebraska 16