TEMPE, Ariz. — All week before the Fiesta Bowl, Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne and Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden said their teams were so evenly matched that a turnover or a penalty might decide the game.
In the Seminoles’ 31-28 come-from-behind victory Friday, it was both.
Nebraska I-back Tyreese Knox’s fumble at the Florida State 3-yard line kept the Huskers from turning a 28-24 lead into an 11-point edge with 6:58 left in the game.
“That really hurt us badly,” Osborne said.
It also gave FSU quarterback Danny McManus a chance to be a hero, and he did it in record-smashing fashion.
The senior from Dania, Fla., drove the Seminoles 97 yards for the eventual winning touchdown, a 15-yard fourthand-goal bullet to Ronald Lewis, with 3:51 to play.
McManus, named the game’s outstanding offensive player, finished with a Fiesta Bowl-record and career-high 375 yards passing. That was the most ever against Nebraska in Osborne’s 15 years as head coach, topping the 363 by Oklahoma State’s Ronnie Williams in 1985.
McManus’ 51 attempts also were a bowl record and his 28 completions were three short.
But the Huskers, who at times used the wishbone formation for the first time ever, weren’t finished.
After completing two passes to the FSU 42, NU quarterback Steve Taylor found Morgan Gregory along the sideline. The sophomore split end slipped a tackle and sprinted to the FSU 2 for what looked like a 56-yard gain with 2:35 to play.
But a penalty for an ineligible receiver downfield wiped that out and any remaining Nebraska hopes for a comeback before a crowd of 72,112, the third-largest in Fiesta Bowl history.
“I don’t understand yet what happened on that play,” Osborne said. “But it was a tragic play, as far as we’re concerned.”
Bowden wasn’t interested in explanations. All he cared about was the result.
“We were very lucky to win the game,” he said. “I feel more lucky than I feel good. But I’d rather be lucky. It’s good to be lucky sometimes.”
The feeling on Nebraska’s side was misery.
“This is really disappointing, especially being my last game,” senior offensive tackle Keven Lightner said. “We were 2 yards from winning it. There is no way they could have come back from 11 points down.”
Tight end Tom Banderas, called for being the ineligible receiver out of a botched formation, said the disappointment for him surpassed that caused by the Oklahoma loss.
“I felt we dominated the second half,” he said. “We were moving the ball consistently. We just didn’t punch it in.
“The Oklahoma game was totally different. They dominated us, period. But this was a game we were supposed to win. It just seemed like it wasn’t meant to be at the end.”
Nebraska hadn’t given up 31 points since another gut-churning loss — a 31-30 setback to Miami in the 1984 Orange Bowl that cost NU a national title.
The victory boosted No. 3 Florida State’s record to 11-1 and assured the Seminoles of their highest final ranking in school history. The previous best was fifth.
Nebraska, 10-2 and ranked No. 5, missed out on a chance to post at least 11 victories in a season for the fifth time ever.
“I’m proud of the team,” Osborne said. “We gave great effort and had a good season. But we all feel very badly.”
Osborne said he has no idea where his team ultimately will be ranked. The Huskers have 17 straight Top 10 finishes.
“I think we can play with most anybody,” he said. “But we’ve lost two games.”
Nebraska appeared on its way to victory in the first quarter.
Richard Bell’s 27-yard punt return to the FSU 19 led to Keith Jones’ 3-yard TD run for a 7-0 NU lead just more than five minutes into the game. Eight minutes later, Dana Brinson returned a punt 52 yards for a touchdown and a 14-0 advantage.
The Nebraska defense also was strong early. In the first 13 minutes, the Huskers forced two punts, strong safety Jeff Tomjack recovered a fumble and strong safety Brian Washington intercepted a McManus pass at the NU 1 and returned it 35 yards.
“Then we had a lapse,” NU defensive coordinator Charlie McBride said. “We got 14 ahead, and our guys rested a little and started making some mistakes.
“We made as many mistakes in the first half of the game as we probably have in two games total.”
McManus began taking advantage in the second quarter.
He capped a 40-yard touchdown drive with a 10-yard pass to split end Herb Gainer. Fullback Dayne Williams ended a 75-yard march with a 4-yard run. And McManus found Gainer for a 25-yard TD at the end of a 55-yard drive to give FSU a 21-14 lead.
That 21-point quarter, the biggest against Nebraska since Michigan scored 24 in the third quarter of the Wolverines’ 27-23 Fiesta Bowl win in 1986, put Nebraska down at halftime but not out.
“We didn’t make many adjustments,” Osborne said. “We just played harder.”
Taylor led a 77-yard touchdown drive to start the third quarter. The big play, a 48-yard pass out of the wishbone to Banderas, was Taylor’s first completion of the game.
After FSU’s Derek Schmidt kicked 32-yard field goal for a 24-21 lead, Nebraska took advantage of Rick Tuten’s 5-yard shanked punt.
The Huskers rolled 52 yards for a touchdown, with Knox bowling over on fourth and one from the 4 to put NU up 28-24.
“We just went back to basic plays the second half like we did at Colorado,” Lightner said. “We came straight up the field with bread-and-butter stuff.
“Their defense was really tired. They were bitching at each other because they couldn’t handle us. But that fumble gave them new life.”
That fumble by Knox on NU’s next possession shot down a 13-play, 71-yard drive that used up 5:41. FSU’s Eric Hayes grabbed the bobble at the 3 as Knox tried to hop a pile to the goal line.
That still left FSU 97 yards away from the go-ahead touchdown, but McManus took care of that with 11 plays — eight of them passes — in 3:51.
A 42-yard pass to backup tailback Dexter Carter moved the ball to the NU 2. But a penalty against Carter two plays later nearly cost the Seminoles the game.
Carter took a pitch left and was snowed under at the 3 for a yard loss, but a flag flew into the pile. Carter claimed NU linebacker LeRoy Etienne was twisting his ankle and was trying to break free. But the officials called Carter for kicking Etienne, creating a third and goal from the 18 after the dead-ball, 15-yard penalty.
After a 3-yard pass to tight end Pat Carter, FSU called a timeout to set up McManus’ 15-yard touchdown pass on a square-in route to Lewis, who beat NU cornerback Lorenzo Hicks.
“We were in the right defense,” McBride said. “Lorenzo did all he could. It was a great pass and a great catch.
“If I had to do it over, I might keep the same defensive front and change the coverage. But we thought about it, made a decision and it happened. Who knows what would have happened if we had played it differently?”
Osborne said Florida State deserves credit for moving 97 yards under pressure.
“They executed very well,” he said. “I thought we were going to stop them a couple of times, particularly after that penalty. Then that fourth-down touchdown pass just killed us.”
Nebraska’s last gasp came on the pass to Gregory. But players interviewed said a mix-up on the play call in the huddle led Banderas to line up on the wrong side, creating the penalty.
|Yards per carry||2.8||4.5|
Nebraska is 2-6 all-time against Florida State.
|Utah State||Sept. 5|
|Arizona State||Sept. 26|
|South Carolina||Oct. 3|
|Oklahoma State||Oct. 17|
|Kansas State||Oct. 24|
|Iowa State||Nov. 7|
|Florida State||Jan. 1|
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