They came strutting down the gauntlet of smoke machines, making their usual peacock entrance, and in their spindly sprinter’s legs Sunday night they carried Penn State’s hopes for a national title.
And how’s that for rich, rich irony?
Miami, sassy and brassy and always doing something that makes you grimace, forever embroiled in some sort of controversy, carrying the banner of Penn State, which is, as we all know, as unsoiled as a snowbank in Happy Valley in January.
So here were the Canes, mouthy as ever and also swift as ever, lining up against those Nebraska diesels, and on the sideline Tom Osborne, implacable as a grain elevator, stoically ground on his gum and waited to see if his public torture would continue for yet another year.
Justice at last. Tom Osborne finally got what was coming to him.
After all those years of agony and torment, of field goals wobbling tantalizingly wide and of zebras making maddeningly incorrect decisions, he was allowed to complete a perfect season.
And the absolute worst he will do this year is share No. 1 with Penn State.
Tom Osborne is a good man and true. He has endured with uncommon grace.
Even Penn State followers should not begrudge the man his moment.
Monday night’s Orange Bowl began the way most Nebraska bowl games begin. The Cornhuskers were looking up out of a 10-0 hole after one quarter.
Once again their elephantine size was being negated by a team with speed. Several different levels of speed.
That always has been Nebraska’s vulnerability. All those mammoth prairie schooners will prevail in harsh heartland conditions, but down here they wilt in the heat and humidity and inevitably are left gasping by smaller, quicker teams.
Osborne, who can be as inflexible as he is intelligent, finally has relented and tries to recruit some Florida speed, some California quicks, to mix in with his stockyard monsters. And Sunday he started a Florida burner, Tommie Frazier, at QB.
But Frazier was gone after the first quarter, though he would make a triumphant return.
In the beginning, though, he turned the corner only once against the whooshing Miami defense and his lone pass of any length was woefully underthrown, and into double coverage besides, and naturally was intercepted.
That turnover occurred at the Miami 3, so the temptation is to assume this turnover was as good as a punt. Except Miami promptly boomed 97 yards for a touchdown.
Miami spreads the field and stretches the defense, and then it runs a tick-tock passing offense - an out, followed by a slant, followed by an out, followed by a slant. Out-slant, “tick-tock,” left-right, “tick-tock.”
And then Frank Costa, the South Philly kid who has been so maligned you’d think he was the quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles, would put up the occasional helium ball and one of those whippet receivers would run under it and outjump the Nebraska defensive backs, who are not as slow as the linemen, but not by much.
The Nebraska defensive backs be gan the game giving way too much cushion, and the more they were singed, the farther off they backed. Easy pickins for Costa and the Canes.
Nebraska, trailing 17-7 in the third quarter, hoped that Miami might relent, might get lax. The Canes have had that habit this season. They seem to lose interest once in the lead.
This game, of course, there would be no excuse for such a sin. With a win, the Canes would retain a chance at No. 1 themselves. Frankly, hardly anyone but the Canes themselves could envision all these circumstances merging to produce a Miami title. Still …
The best battle was down there amongst the Nebraska diesels, who were trying to fend off Warren Sapp, Miami’s flesh-rending tackle and the best defensive lineman in the nation.
The Huskers flip-flopped guards so their All-American, Brenden Stai, normally on the right side, would face Sapp. And through much of the first half Sapp spent an inordinate amount of time on the ground. Once he was pancaked by center Aaron Graham. But Sapp persisted. And gradually things began to turn his way. He had a 12-yard sack. Soon he was hurrying almost every pass.
And yet Nebraska, for all its scuffling, was within a touchdown and - ghosts of Orange Bowls past - a 2-point conversion of a tie.
It seemed to be an omen of some favor for the Huskers. And so it was.
Nebraska played from behind and played from behind, and had every good reason to throw it in.
But it persevered, just as its coach has persevered, and finally the long, long road had a turning in it.
Tom Osborne, the ultimate stoic, always has insisted that he could live without being No. 1. But by all that is right, he shouldn’t have to.
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