MIAMI -- Each surgical touchdown drive was a tribute to Tom Osborne and a thumb of the nose to the media critics and coaches who decide who's No. 1 in college football.
A driven Nebraska team dominated the Orange Bowl at Pro Player Stadium last night. An anticlimactic 42-17 pounding of No. 3 Tennessee before 72,385 might not have been enough to make history in the polls, but as a retirement present, it was just what Osborne had in mind.
"It was a great way to end 25 years of coaching," Osborne said after his second-ranked Cornhuskers capped a 13-0 season. "There have been a few bumps along the road, but I can't think of a better way to go out."
Nebraska was recognized as the nation's best in 1994 and '95, but its hope for a historic third national championship in four years had been doused 3,000 miles away a day earlier.
The Alliance National Championship game became a misnomer on New Year's Day, when No. 1 Michigan beat No. 8 Washington State, 21-16, in the Rose Bowl. Every top-ranked team in the Associated Press poll that had ever won its bowl game retained the No. 1 spot, and the Wolverines stayed there when the final polls were released this morning.
"Barring a miracle, the AP is going to go Michigan's way," said Cornhuskers quarterback Scott Frost, who ran for
60 of Nebraska's 409 rushing yards and three touchdowns. "But I've got this to say to the coaches who vote [in the USA Today/ESPN poll]. If you look in the mirror, and your job depended on playing Michigan or Nebraska, who would you want to play?"
Nebraskans have little right to complain about the proceedings, considering that Osborne's first national championship, after the season, was undisputed in the two polls even though Penn State also was unbeaten and untied.
The situation shouldn't exist next season, when the Rose Bowl joins the Alliance for what will be called the National Championship Series.
The Cornhuskers made a strong case, as they took a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter, and put up second-half touchdown drives of 80, 73, 80 and 66 yards. Tailback Ahman Green finished with 206 yards rushing, an Orange Bowl record, and was voted the Nebraska Most Valuable Player.
With 534 yards in total offense, Nebraska surpassed its national-leading averages in both that and yards rushing.
The Cornhuskers weren't too shabby on the other side of the ball either.
Here's everything you need to know about Nebraska's defense, which has more first-team All-Americans than its offense: through 40 minutes, Frost (9-for-12 for 125 yards overall) had more yards passing than Peyton Manning, who lost the Heisman Trophy and his first Alliance Bowl to boot.
Manning completed 21 of 31 passes, but for only 134 yards. His longest completion was 20 yards.
"They set the tempo basically the entire third quarter," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said. "I've been asked probably 16 times between the field and here who I was going to vote for [in the coaches' poll]. I will say it again. I will vote for Nebraska as the No. 1 team in America."
Osborne had little to say about poll controversy.
"I'm very proud of our team," Osborne said. "We did all we could. We won 13 games, and that's all we played."
The fastest coach ever to 250 wins, Osborne retired with a 255-49-3 record. The Cornhuskers were a stunning 60-3 over the last five seasons. It was his third straight win in the Orange Bowl, where he won his first national championship, but lost shots at titles in 1981, '83 and '93.
As much as Osborne tried to downplay his emotions, his players knew it was not just another night in Miami.
"I've never seen him more emotional on the sideline," All-America defensive tackle Jason Peter said.
Osborne will be replaced by assistant head coach Frank Solich, who oversees the option offense that devastated Tennessee in the third quarter.
The Southeastern Conference was 5-0 in its other bowl games. The Volunteers (11-2) were the best it had to offer and entered with a nine-game win streak, but they fell behind 14-3 at the half, and any hope they had of a comeback ended on the first possession of the second half.
A classic Nebraska smash-mouth drive featured 11 running plays and one pass, that a forward pitch from Frost to Green. Frost went over the top on a 1-yard sneak to complete an 80-yard scoring drive that ate up nearly five minutes.
Green's 43-yard run keyed the next drive, which upped the spread to 28-3. That one needed only six plays to cover 73 yards. The next Cornhuskers' possession was even more impressive, as the offensive line blew open enough holes for Green to lead Nebraska 80 yards in four plays for a 35-9 bulge with 29 seconds left in the third quarter.
Tennessee had finally got in the end zone on Manning's 5-yard pass to Peerless Price with 1: 58 left in the third quarter, but the spread went right back up to 33 on Frost's 9-yard run with 4: 24 left in the game.
The Volunteers were again hit by the turnover bug that kept their SEC title game against Auburn close, as Tennessee mistakes allowed Nebraska to take a 14-0 lead.
The Volunteers drove 43 yards to the Cornhuskers' 20-yard line with 4: 44 left in the first quarter, when rover back Mike Brown separated the ball from freshman tailback Jamal Lewis.
Nebraska recovered at its own 22, and put together a neat 78-yard drive that featured 63 yards worth of passing from Frost, who showed the touch that led him to begin his college career at Stanford. The drive ended with Green going in from the 1.
Tennessee then lost it on an interception and a blown punt return, which required Nebraska to drive only 15 yards for its second touchdown. That just made it too easy for the Cornhuskers.
When the final touchdown was on the board, the Nebraska fans chanted "We're No. 1." They weren't even watching the action when backup quarterback Tee Martin drove Tennessee 80 yards for a score at the end.
Instead, their eyes were on the sidelines, and a tall, laconic man who had spent all but three of his 60 years in his home state.
"Osborne, Osborne," they chanted.
"It's been a very difficult week," Osborne said. "The attention has been nice, but it's something I'd rather not have."
Tennessee 0 3 6 8 -- 17
Nebraska 7 7 21 7 -- 42
Pub Date: 1/03/98