MIAMI — Nebraska put exclamation points Friday night on Tom Osborne's coaching career and its argument for the No. 1 spot in the college football world.
The second-ranked Huskers manhandled third-ranked Tennessee 42-17 in the 64th FedEx Orange Bowl to complete a 13-0 season, Osborne's third in a 25-year career that ended with the completion of Friday's night game before 72,385 at Pro Player Stadium.
The 25-point victory was enough to gain Osborne and his team a share of the national championship. Top-ranked Michigan held the No. 1 spot in The Associated Press poll of writers and broadcasters with a 21-16 win over Nos. 7 and 8 Washington State in Thursday's Rose Bowl. But Nebraska leapfrogged the Wolverines in the USA Today/ESPN coaches' poll, receiving 32 first-place votes to 30 for Michigan.
"We've done all we can," Osborne said. "We can't do any more than win 13. We'll just let the chips fall where they may as far as the rest of it goes."
Osborne's players offered stronger arguments as to why the voters should put Nebraska at the top of their ballots and make the Huskers the first team to leapfrog a top-ranked team that had won its bowl game.
"The AP has pretty much given it away," Nebraska quarterback Scott Frost said. "It's up to the coaches. I'm proud of this team and proud of Coach Osborne, and I don't want to see him go out without a championship. I basically have two points for the coaches.
"One, if you can look yourself in the mirror and say if your job depended on playing either Michigan or Nebraska, who would you rather play? The Rose Bowl ended with a controversial play at the end. We took apart the third-ranked team in the country.
"Two, I can't see how any coach outside the Big Ten or the Pac-10 could vote for Michigan. If the other coaches finished undefeated and won the Alliance Bowl game, they would expect to share the national title. It's been split before. It's OK to split it again."
Said defensive tackle Jason Peter: "Don't give it to Michigan because they haven't seen the national title in 45 years. Give it to us because we're the best team in the country."
The Huskers made a strong argument by burying Tennessee with a three-touchdown third-quarter scoring explosion that stretched a 14-3 lead into a 35-9 bulge. The assault was led by I-back Ahman Green, Nebraska's most valuable player who gained 159 of his Orange-Bowl record 206 yards in the third quarter.
Thirteen of Green's 29 carries came in the third quarter, when Nebraska chewed through the Volunteer defense with 22 running plays that allowed the Huskers to eliminate all doubt as to who would win the game.
"I will vote for Nebraska as the No. 1 team in America," said Tennessee Coach Phillip Fulmer, whose team finished 11-2. "They certainly showed us in the third quarter. They handed us our butts physically in the third quarter. We got mismatched, whipped."
Nebraska, the nation's leading rushing team this season, gained 340 of its 409 rushing yards in the final two quarters. Overall, Nebraska finished with 534 yards to 315 for Tennessee, which had come into the game with an offense that ranked fourth nationally with a per-game output of 483 yards.
"The talk at halftime was, 'You got to keep things rolling,'" Green said. "Coach Osborne said we had to come out the second half and keep putting points of the board and keep pounding them."
Green, the junior from Omaha Central, spearheaded the pounding by ripping off third-quarter runs of 14, 43, 47 and 22 against a Tennessee defense that ranked eighth nationally in rushing defense (93.3-yard average).
"We did what we could, control and run the ball, pound the ball on Tennessee," Green said. "We can't control anything else. We had a great season. We're 13-0, and that's a great season national title or not."
Regardless of the outcomes of the polls, Osborne exits with a final season that solidifies his standing as one of the college game's all-time great coaches. Friday's win left him with a 255-49-3 record and completed a run of 60 wins in 63 games over the past five seasons.
"This was a great way to end 25 enjoyable years," Osborne said. "There's been a few bumps along the road, but I can't think of a better way to go out. I just hope the guys coming back next year can keep the program rolling.
"I really care for these guys. I'm grateful the kind of people they are, the kind of effort they've given us and the kind of relationship that I've had with them."
Osborne had said repeatedly that he didn't want his Dec. 10 retirement announcement to take away from his team's focus on its 17th Orange Bowl appearance. Obviously, it didn't as the Huskers improved their record in the Miami game to 8-9 with its third straight Orange Bowl win. The Huskers defeated Miami in the 1995 game and won last season against Virginia Tech.
The Huskers, who had gained 109 of their 178 first-quarter yards on Frost's passing, returned to their bread-and-butter running attack in the third quarter. The Huskers ran off scoring drives of 80 yards in 12 plays, 73 yards in six plays and 80 yards in four plays.
Frost capped the first two drives with scoring runs of 1 and 11 yards. Green's 22-yard touchdown run finished the third, less than two minutes after Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning had directed the Volunteers to their first touchdown.
Frost scored his third touchdown, on a 9-yard run, to put Nebraska ahead 42-9 with 4:24 left in the game. Tennessee, a two-touchdown underdog, added a meaningless score with 58 seconds remaining when Andy McCullough caught a 3-yard scoring pass from backup quarterback Tee Martin.
Manning, the runner-up in the Heisman Trophy voting, finished his sterling collegiate career by completing 21 of 31 passes for just 134 yards. Nebraska's secondary, considered exploitable because of its youth, did not allow Manning a completion of more than 20 yards. Martin did complete a 29-yarder in the final minutes against the Husker reserves.
"There's no question that they're a good defense," Manning said. "They really didn't do anything in particular that we haven't seen on film. I thought we made some mistakes as an offense that kind of put us in tough positions."
Manning, who threw for 3,819 yards and 36 touchdowns during the regular season, made one of those mistakes when he threw an interception on the final play of the first quarter. It was one of three first-half turnovers for the Volunteers.
"We were fortunate to only be down by 11 points after the turnovers," Fulmer said. "I think our team felt really good about their chances to win the ballgame at halftime because physically, Nebraska just hadn't dominated."
Dominant or not, Nebraska took a 14-3 lead into halftime. The Huskers used a 78-yard drive to grab the lead in the closing minutes of a defense-dominated first quarter. Nebraska had been held to 7 yards on its first two possessions before riding Frost's arm to its opening touchdown.
Frost completed three passes on the drive — of 25 yards to tight end Sheldon Jackson, of 16 yards to split end Matt Davison and of 22 yards to wingback Bobby Newcombe — to move the Huskers from their 22 to the Tennessee 13-yard line.
Shevin Wiggins gained 12 yards on a wingback reverse, and Green got his first touchdown by diving into the end zone from a yard out with 1:10 remaining in the quarter.
The Huskers' touchdown came after Mike Rucker's fumble recovery had stymied a Tennessee drive that had carried from the Volunteers' 37-yard line to the Nebraska 20. Manning completed two passes on the drive for 24 yards, and Jamal Lewis gained 11 yards on three rushes.
On first down from the 20, Lewis swept left but lost the ball on a hard tackle by Nebraska cornerback Ralph Brown. Rucker recovered to end the scoring threat.
Tennessee's second turnover came on the last play of the opening quarter, when Manning's pass bounced off the hands of wide receiver Jeremaine Copeland into Eric Warfield's arms. Warfield, the only senior in Nebraska's young secondary, returned the interception 28 yards to the Tennessee 26-yard line.
Nebraska was punting from the Volunteers' 43 after three plays lost 9 yards and the Huskers were flagged for holding. The Huskers got the football back when Tori Noel fumbled Jesse Kosch's punt, and Lance Brown scooped up the loose ball at the Tennessee 15.
Nebraska's lead grew to 14-0 three plays later when Wiggins raced 10 yards on a reverse with 11:28 left in the second quarter. The score was the first rushing touchdown for Wiggins, a junior from Palmetto, Fla.
Tennessee closed to within 14-3 when Manning marched the Volunteers 35 yards to set up Jeff Hall's 44-yard field goal.
Manning had back-to-back completions of 10 yards, to Marcus Nash, and of 13 yards, to Copeland, to move Tennessee to the Nebraska 34-yard line.
The Volunteers' next three plays gained only 7 yards, bringing Hall on to kick his 17th field goal of the season.
Nebraska made it into Tennessee territory on its final two possessions of the first half but came away without a point. The first ended 35 yards from the Volunteers' goal line after eight plays had moved Nebraska from its 34. Kosch punted into the end zone, and Tennessee went 3-and-out third time of the half on the ensuing possession.
Frost then moved Nebraska from its 31 to the Tennessee 14 on a workmanlike 10-play drive. Twenty-nine of the 55 yards came on a shovel pass from Frost to Green that gave Nebraska a first down at the Tennessee 36.
Six straight runs picked up two first downs, with Frost getting the second on a fourth-and-inches quarterback sneak that picked up 3 yards. But on the next play, Frost got sandwiched between Tennessee defenders Anthony Hampton and Leonard Little and lost the ball.
Tennessee defensive end Jonathan Brown recovered, setting up a last-gasp effort by Tennessee to cut the Huskers' lead. Taking over with 34 seconds left in the half, the Volunteers used a 26-yard run by Lewis and a 17-yard completion from Manning to Nash to move to the Nebraska 40 with 15 seconds left.
Tennessee then used its third and final timeout of the half. On the next play, Manning threw 10 yards to Copeland, but the Tennessee receiver couldn't get out of bounds and time expired before the Volunteers could run another play.
In spite of trailing by 11 points, Tennessee wound up playing Nebraska almost even in the statistics in the opening 30 minutes.
The Volunteers had 176 yards at halftime to Nebraska's 178. The Huskers, who led the nation with an average of 392.6 rushing yards per game, picked up just 69 on the ground on 28 carries.
Meanwhile, the Huskers held Manning to 96 passing yards in the first two quarters.
|Yards per carry||6.1||6.0|
Nebraska is 2-1 all-time against Tennessee.
|Central Florida||Sept. 13|
|Kansas State||Oct. 4|
|Texas Tech||Oct. 18|
|Iowa State||Nov. 15|
|Texas A&M||Dec. 6|
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