It was New Year’s Day 1994 with college football’s two top teams fighting under the beautiful auburn sunset of Miami, Florida.
Bobby Bowden and the top-seeded Florida State Seminoles entered the 1994 Orange Bowl, 17 ½ point favorites over Tom Osborne and the undefeated Nebraska Cornhuskers. It didn’t matter that the Seminoles had entered the national championship with a blemished 11-1 record (their lone defeat came at the expense of the NCAA’s other undefeated squad, the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame). But with quarterback Charlie Ward fresh off his Heisman win, FSU was determined to bring college football supremacy to Tallahassee for the very first time.
This game was catered to, for all intents and purposes, everybody. The contest started out as a clinic of fantastic defense as neither team was able to score in the opening quarter. Actually, the Cornhuskers did score a touchdown on a punt return but due to an offensive infraction, it was called back.
Zeroes remained on the board until FSU kicker Scott Bentley drilled a 33-yard field goal to put the Seminoles up 3-0. But Nebraska responded as quarterback Tommie Frazier fired a pass that tipped right into the arms of wideout Reggie Baul and like that, the Huskers had the 7-3 lead. But Bentley was at it again, kicking another field goal – this time with 29 seconds remaining in the half – to cut the deficit to a single point.
Early in the third quarter, the ‘Noles made an impressive drive down the field which was finished off by running back William Floyd who pounded it in from the 1-yard line. Unfortunately for FSU, their two-point conversion failed, but they still held a 12-7 lead. Soon after after Bentley made it 15-7, Nebraska’s freshman running back Lawrence Phillips scored on a 12-yard touchdown run to pull the Huskers to deficit to tie. They attempted the two-point conversion to tie but failed. It didn’t matter, however, as Nebraska’s defense would stand tall, preventing FSU from scoring again.
Then, with just 1:18 remaining in regulation, Nebraska kicker Byron Bennett made good on a 27-year yard attempt to regain the Nebraska lead, sending the Huskers to within striking distance of their first national title since 1971. But the Seminoles weren’t about to give in just yet.
The defensive fanatics had the first quarter, those who love the back-and-forth affairs had the rest, but in the end, it was those connoisseurs of the bizarre that got their wish in the waning moments of the spectacle that was the 1994 Orange Bowl.
It all started on the ensuing kickoff when Nebraska inexplicably kicked the ball out of bound. Just like that, Florida State was granted excellent field position and the Huskers, feeling national glory within their grasp just moments earlier, suddenly fearing the worst. The Huskers had every right to feel threatened. After all, QB Charlie Ward had not won the Heisman – college football’s most illustrious individual honor – by accident. Ward was determined to win his team and his soon-to-be-legendary coach a national championship.
Completion after completion, Ward drove his Seminoles deep into enemy territory – on the Nebraska 3-yeard line, to be exact. But then, nothing. No matter, however, as Scott Bentley hit his fifth field goal of the evening to give Florida State the all-too-crucial last-minute lead. With just 21 seconds to go, it was 18-16 and the Seminoles and their fans went nuts. But it was a little too much. Like Nebraska had done on the previous kickoff, Florida State had shot themselves in the foot, getting penalized for excessive celebration which cost them 15 yards on the ensuing kickoff.
With their ever-so-small window of opportunity, Tommie Frazier started a drive that ended in him finding tight end Trumane Bell who got down to the FSU 29-yard line. But with the clock at 0:00, the Seminoles celebrated, dousing Coach Bowden in the ever-popular Gatorade bath tradition. But not so fast.
The referee said the clock was on 0:01 when Bell was ruled down.
So, here it was. One final play for all the marbles to end one heck of a season. Would Florida State hold on for its first national title or would Nebraska escape the grip of fate’s overpowering hands to end their 33-year championship drought?
Byron Bennett walked onto the lush green of the Orange Bowl, the host of five previous Super Bowls, ready to open a new page in the history book with the permanent ink that would either make or break the kicker’s collegiate career. Both teams held their collective breaths, the 81,000-plus in attendance on their feet, squirming in anticipation and then – the ball is snapped. Bennett makes his run to the ball, kicks it, it sails through the crisp Miami air, and then – wide left.
Poor Bennett is left despondent, labeled the goat by the harshest of critics while Ward, Bowden and the 1993 Florida State Seminoles are euphoric, celebrating a new peak in the success that is their school’s illustrious football program.
Final score: Florida State 18, Nebraska 16.
But for those who feel sorry for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, don’t. The team was so heartbroken by their last-second loss, they turned defeat into sheer motivation, winning the National Championship the following year and again on New Year’s Day, 1996
*Section Photo credit to Albert Dickson, Sporting News; Featured Photo (above) credit to Omaha World-Herald.