Sunday, January 2, 2011

January 2, 1982: Going for 2

MIAMI - It was a gut-wrenching decision, the kind that no coach wants to have to make. The top ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers had just scored on a fourth down option run to cut their deficit in the Orange Bowl to 31-30, and now it was decision time for coach Tom Osborne.

With no overtime at that time, attempting a sure-thing extra point would have resulted in a tie, which would have almost certainly given Nebraska the national championship it was seeking. Nebraska entered the game 12-0, and with second ranked Texas losing earlier in the day and third-ranked Auburn winning unimpressively, it was unlikely either team would pass Nebraska in the polls if Nebraska tied Miami. On the other hand, Osborne didn't feel right winning the national championship on a tie. He felt like the title should be unquestioned, that there should never be an accusation that Nebraska backed into a championship.

Oddly enough, Osborne had been asked earlier in the week what he would do if this exact situation came up. "I hope it doesn't come up," he said. "I'll be crucified one way or another on that one." But it came up. It was decision time.

Perhaps his decision was affected by the momentum his Cornhuskers had gained. Trailing 31-17 entering the fourth quarter, the Cornhuskers scored once to cut the deficit to 31-24, then again when quarterback Turner Gill executed a perfect option run Jeff Smith to score from 24 yards out on fourth and eight. With the momentum on their side, it seemed like the Cornhuskers would be able to get those three yards they needed for the national championship.

So Osborne made the decision: go for it. They called a pass play, with Gill looking for Smith. Miami's Kenny Calhoun reached out and broke up the pass, preserving Miami's victory and causing heartbreak across Nebraska.

That one play established Miami's football dynasty. After holding on for the stunning victory, Miami leapfrogged #4 Illinois (which had lost the Rose Bowl 45-9), #3 Auburn, #2 Texas, and #1 Nebraska in the polls to win its first national championship and establish itself, almost immediately, as the team of the 1980s.

It would take Osborne 11 more seasons to win his first national championship with Nebraska. Though he would eventually win two more, his legacy will always be his decision to go for two in the Orange Bowl, not necessarily because the move failed, but because he had the guts to try it in the first place.

January 2, 1982: MIAMI - The picture made Kellen Winslow a household name; it shows Winslow being dragged off the field of Miami's Orange Bowl by two teammates, too exhausted to be able to move on his own. It's the perfect image of what happened in the game that came to be known as the Epic in Miami. When the Chargers had a 24-0 lead after one quarter on a warm, humid night, the game looked like it would be anything but a classic. But the Dolphins charged back, tying the score in the third. Each team scored two more touchdowns to lead to a 38-38 tie as Miami lined up for the game-winning field goal at the end of regulation. Winslow blocked the kick to keep the season alive for the Chargers. San Diego missed a short field goal on the first possession of overtime before blocking another kick later in the period. Finally, the Chargers put one through the uprights, winning 41-38.

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