MIAMI -- Four Nebraska football fans straggled into their hotel early yesterday morning, their heads and clothes matted in sweat, their red pompons droopy.
"They made us wait so long," one of them said, "but it was worth it."
They weren't talking about the 23 years between national championships, but the more than two quarters between touchdowns in their team's come-from-behind, 24-17 victory over Miami in Sunday night's Orange Bowl.
After falling behind 10-0 in the first quarter and then by 17-7 early in the third quarter, the top-ranked Cornhuskers needed a third-quarter safety and two touchdowns in the final 7:38 to beat the third-ranked Hurricanes.
"We thought possibly we could wear them down," Nebraska coach Tom Osborne said at yesterday's news conference. "Eventually by the fourth quarter, we established mostly what we had set out to do. But I don't think we could have won the game if the defense hadn't played so well."
Or if quarterback Tommie Frazier hadn't come off the bench, after starting the game and then being taken out in favor of Brook Berringer, to put Nebraska in position to win with some of his former magic.
Frazier, who missed the last two months of the regular season because of blood clots in his leg, made three key plays down the stretch: a two-point conversion pass to tight end Eric Alford to tie the game at 17 after the first of two touchdown runs by fullback Cory Schlesinger, then two third-down runs to set up the game-winning touchdown with 2:46 to play.
"Everyone was very confident," said Frazier, who was voted his team's MVP. "We knew their defensive front was very tired and we knew that all we had to do was pound the ball inside."
Asked why he put Frazier back in the game after Berringer threw what seemed to be a critical fourth-quarter interception, Osborne said, "We thought Tommie could make some big plays. We needed some big plays."
For the first three quarters, the only ones making big plays were the Hurricanes. First it was quarterback Frank Costa connecting with speedy wide receivers Trent Jones and Jonathan Harris for touchdown catch-and-runs of 35 and 44 yards, respectively. Then it was All-America defensive tackle Warren Sapp causing havoc for the Cornhuskers offense all over the field.
"I knew he was good, but he was better than I thought," Osborne said yesterday of Sapp, who was credited with five tackles, two of them going for losses, and two sacks. "We ended up running our plays away from him."
With the loss of defensive end Pat Riley to injury, a rather thin line became even thinner for the Hurricanes. Instead of Nebraska fading down the stretch, as happened so often during its recent string of three straight Orange Bowl defeats, Miami was the team that got tired.
"We were swarming to the ball until the end of the game," said Sapp, who likely will file for early NFL eligibility and not return for his senior year. "And then we didn't make some tackles. You have to make plays to win. They made the plays at the end and we didn't."
The victory, which will likely give Nebraska (13-0) its first national championship under Osborne and the school's first since winning back-to-back titles under Bob Devaney in 1970 and 1971, ended a seven-year New Year's Day losing streak for the Cornhuskers.
It was also the third straight New Year's Day loss for Miami (10-2), which lost for the second time on its home field this season and only the second time overall since 1985. The defeat fueled speculation that Dennis Erickson, despite his recent denials, will take an NFL head coaching job for next season.
"I would like to congratulate Nebraska," said Erickson, who had a run-in with a derisive fan as the Miami coach left the field. "Our kids played very hard, but you just can't make the mistakes [including a botched punt] we did and the penalties we had [11 for 92 yards]. They made the plays to win."