The kick was wide left. It was over.
The Nebraska football team trudged off the field on a steamy night at the Orange Bowl, heads held high. Without a trophy but not without their pride.
They were 17-point underdogs to mighty Florida State. They came within a whisker of one of the greatest wins in college football history. Of immortality.
In the disconsolate locker room, coach Tom Osborne broke the silence.
“Tomorrow, you will not be voted national champions,” Osborne told his team. “But you gave me your best tonight. The way you approached this game, the way you prepared, the way you performed, and the way you fought through bad breaks and adversity. You did everything we asked you to do.
“In my book, we're champions.”
The history book says the 1994 Huskers were Osborne's first national champions. Historians say the 1995 squad was the best. The 1997 team won the bookend title and helped define the greatest era.
This is the 20th anniversary of the 1993 Huskers. They aren't expecting a reunion. No recognition for their place in program history.
It's an important place in history, though. The 1993 team was one of five Osborne teams to finish the regular season undefeated. But, like the 1983 team, it lost the last game.
But the '93 Huskers taught Nebraska how to win again. Put the program back on the national map.
They faced the best bowl opponent of any Nebraska team in the 1990s: No. 1 Florida State with Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward. If they had delivered Osborne's first national title as 17-point underdogs to Bobby Bowden's superhuman club, they would be the most celebrated Nebraska team in history.
The team fell two points short, one kick short. And fell through the cracks of history.
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“I've always kind of felt sorry for the seniors on that team,” said Zach Wiegert, a junior on that team who went on to win the Outland Trophy on the 1994 national title team. “They deserved to win that game. If we make that field goal, it's one of the all-time greatest teams in college football history.”
It was the bridge team. A blend of seniors who had been through the bottom-out of 1990 and the transition to the Unity Council and the 4-3 defense — and the fresh and talented underclassmen, some of whom would become among the storied names in school history.
But first they had to figure out how to win. It all started 20 years ago, this week, when No. 8 Nebraska played UCLA in the Rose Bowl. It was Sept. 18, 1993.
“We had been through a lot as a program, and that year was kind of a gut check for us,” said Trev Alberts, a senior rush end in 1993. “Our motto was 'Refuse to Lose.' Boyd Epley had really spent a lot of time with us on finishing. To lose a game that early in the season could have been devastating.”
Nebraska was without preseason All-America I-back Calvin Jones, who had a knee strain. Sophomore quarterback Tommie Frazier played on a bad ankle. A freshman from L.A. named Lawrence Phillips had a big debut. The unranked Bruins had a 53-yard touchdown called back by a penalty and missed two field goals. Nebraska won 14-13.
“It wasn't pretty at all,” Alberts said after the game. “But I'm going back to Lincoln with a smile on my face.”
That would be the theme. There weren't many blowout wins in the 11-0 run. This was a machine only in the sense of cranking out a way to win each week.
“It was a lunch pail group,” Alberts said. “Some of the young kids were flashy, but we were mostly a team of unassuming workers. Our captains were Gerald Armstrong from Ponca (Neb.), Lance Lundberg from Wausa (Neb.), myself and John Reece from Texas.
“We were a bunch of fighters. That was our mentality.”
It came in handy during two straight Saturdays that held the season together. There was a 21-17 win at Colorado on Oct. 30 — NU's first win at Folsom Field since 1987. It was the first signature win for defensive coordinator Charlie McBride's 4-3 scheme. Kordell Stewart was sacked four times and hurried into a costly interception late.
Then there was Lawrence. The Huskers came out sluggish and Kansas coach Glen Mason's best team came down to a two-point conversion for the upset. Defensive tackle Kevin Ramaekers helped force an incompletion. Mason left running back June Henley (37 carries, 148 yards) on the sideline for the two-point try.
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Their signature moment and memory will always be the Orange Bowl. Frazier outplaying Ward, Osborne outcoaching Bowden, the 4-3 defense in full bloom and a four-man rush sacking the Heisman winner five times. The Corey Dixon punt return called back. The William Floyd fumble. Of course, those two.
The crazy final minutes. NU takes the lead, then FSU comes down and regains it. A long pass from Frazier to Trumane Bell. The clock expires. No, wait. There's still a second left. Byron Bennett rushed out to attempt a 45-yard field goal. Wide left.
The Huskers shocked the world, if not themselves, that night. They served notice that NU was back near the top. The Big Red brand was transformed from a program that can't win the big one to one that just might win a few big ones.
That type of legacy doesn't get put in a trophy case or get a reunion. Maybe it should.
“That year was the turning point for two things,” Wiegert said. “It was the first time we had a game against a team that was supposed to be faster and more talented than us and we outplayed them in all facets of the game. Nebraska wasn't a team that you dreaded playing. But we became one after that game.
“The other thing was, our reaction to losing the national championship game. Instead of boo-hoo, there were people in the locker room within five minutes after the game saying 'that will never, ever happen again.' The work ethic and determination from that game began immediately in the offseason. And the incoming freshmen like Grant Wistrom saw that and learned that was how it was going to be in this program.”
They set up the 90s. But after the game, it didn't necessarily feel that way. Alberts said when Osborne called his team champs, it “softened the pain.” But they couldn't help but wonder if they had blown an opportunity.
A year later, Alberts went back to the Orange Bowl and watched Touchdown Tommie come back and Cory Schlesinger score twice and Osborne get carried off the field with his brass ring. He then went back into the same locker room to congratulate the coach.
“He had just won his national championship,” Alberts said. “And the first thing he does is come up to me and say, 'I am so sorry you and the other seniors didn't get to experience this last year. You deserve it.' ”
Twenty years later, they deserve to be remembered.
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Video: Big Ten Preview Show, Sept. 11
Video: Big Red Today Show, Sept. 10