But the landscape of college football is littered with teams that have resolved to beat Miami in the Orange Bowl only to find themselves outworked, outrun, outplayed and simply intimidated by a collection of players who backed up every cocky utterance with supreme effort. The Hurricanes had won all three bowl games they had played against the lead-footed, option-happy Cornhuskers. "No team had more to prove in here than Nebraska," said Highsmith after the Miami loss.
The Hurricane dynasty that began when Gill's pass was batted away was built on speed, especially on defense, where high school safeties become linebackers and linebackers become defensive ends. So after Miami blew out the Cornhuskers 23-3 in the 1989 Orange Bowl, the Big Red coaching staff knew it had to forever forgo recruiting those earnest but slow instate boys for the secondary. "But then we had to go out and get the personnel," says Nebraska defensive coordinator Charlie McBride, "which wasn't something that happened overnight."
Shortly after a 22-0 loss to Miami in the 1992 Orange Bowl, Osborne and his staff began landing quicker, more athletic types from California, Florida and Texas—the breeding grounds for Miami's success. "I grew up following Nebraska, and it wasn't clear to me why Miami and Florida State had so much success against Nebraska in the Orange Bowl," said Cornhusker senior linebacker Troy Dumas. "But when we played Miami my first year here, I knew why. I was just in awe of their speed. And I said to myself, We need some of that."
They got it. Nebraska's defense, led by All-America linebacker Ed Stewart, came into Sunday's game ranked fourth in the nation (Miami's was No. 1) and boasted a 4.7 average in the 40 to the Hurricanes' 4.64. Though unmasked as vulnerable to the big play, Nebraska's defensive line sliced through Miami's porous blocking, causing havoc and one safety, sacking Miami quarterback Frank Costa five times and leaving his helmet covered with divots and dings.
In the most crucial stretch Nebraska forced four straight Miami punts in the fourth quarter. On Miami's fifth series Costa fired an interception with one min-ate left. "That's what we dreamed about all year," said senior outside linebacker Donta Jones. "We came out and proved to the whole world that we could stop a team like Miami in the fourth quarter."
The Hurricanes have now lost their last three bowl games, and if their mystique was battered in back-to-back postseason pastings (by Alabama in the 1993 Sugar Bowl, then Arizona in the Fiesta), it was shattered by Nebraska—the program mocked by Miami rooters as the anti-Hurricanes: too big and slow, too fainthearted, too Osborne-like to win on the big stage. Yet this season it was Miami that lost twice at home, and if there was anything nearly as cherished as that 58-game win streak in the Orange Bowl that was broken by Washington this season, it was the 24-game night streak there that Nebraska snapped on New Year's. Most telling, perhaps, was the fact that in the fourth quarter, at home, the Hurricanes visibly sagged. "They had a lot of vacation," Jones said. "We didn't come here for vacation; we came for business."
Only Miami receiver Chris T. Jones and All-World defensive tackle Warren Sapp seemed like-minded. Even though Nebraska tinkered with its line—moving Stai, an All-America guard, for the first time all season to Sapp's side—Sapp still dominated, picking up two sacks and, just before halftime, pulling down Phillips from behind with one hand. Stai called him the best lineman he has ever tangled with. But Sapp predicted that Miami's defense would contain Nebraska, and as Miami knows better than anyone, the winner gets the final word. "If you ask me, he's overrated," said Dumas. "He's got that Miami attitude. They think they can just walk all over anybody that steps in here. They take people too lightly."
Maybe Miami coach Dennis Erickson sensed that too. Constant speculation over his interest in coaching in the NFL—and the Pell Grant and pay-for-play scandals now under in-house investigation by Miami—have worn Erickson's skin paper-thin. He spent bowl week sniping at reporters and then, red-faced and screaming, punctuated the loss by challenging a heckling fan to come down and fight when Sunday night's game was over. Defensive coordinator Greg McMackin followed suit and had to be pulled from the area. Not exactly a class exit, but maybe that's what happens when renegade programs hit the wall.
The contrast between coaches couldn't have been more stark. After the game Osborne walked around the stadium, thanking his players, thanking Orange Bowl officials (who this season had privately joked about his futility against Florida teams), saying goodbye to faces he wouldn't see again because with this game the Big Eight's affiliation with the Orange Bowl ended. Osborne had a clipboard under his arm and a bag lunch dangling from his hand. The biggest of his 219 wins was just over, and he looked like a guy who had stopped at the deli on his way to the train. "It feels awful good," he said. Then he tried again as the lights of the Orange Bowl went black all around him. "I feel great," Osborne said. "But I felt good last year. We played well last year, well enough to win. I don't get as hung up on the trophies as some people think."
Then he gave up. "I know everybody wants me to say, 'Gee, everything's different,' " he said. "But I feel about the same as after any game we won."