THE BOWL GAMES : Fiesta Bowl : Florida State Makes Its Claim as No. 1 in Both Polls and Luck

Times Staff Writer

Here is how close Florida State came to winning college football's national championship:

The Seminoles won Friday's sun-kissed--a weather report, not a brand name--Fiesta Bowl, 31-28 over Nebraska, by driving 97 yards and scoring the winning touchdown with 3:07 to play, giving them an 11-1 record for the season.

The loss was to Miami, which met Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl for the national championship.

The loss was by one point.

So, please forgive Florida State tight end Pat Carter if, when asked if his team was the best team in the country, his answer was: "Definitely! By far!"

Also, please excuse wide receiver Herb (Long) Gainer, who caught two touchdown passes and got caught up in all the excitement, for his plea to poll voters: "Just look at the films of every game. Look at Oklahoma on film. Look at Miami on film. Then, look at us. I'm sure you'd cast your vote for Florida State University."

Above all, please understand where quarterback Danny McManus was coming from, after an eyebrow-raising 28-of-51 passing day for 3 touchdowns and a Fiesta-record 375 yards, when he said he was "rooting for both teams" in the Orange Bowl--to fall on their facemasks and tie.

These three players are seniors, so naturally they wanted Florida State to enjoy--as the TV quiz-show hosts say--a nice parting gift.

The Sunkist Fiesta Bowl was not too shabby, as gifts go.

But now, with all that said, here is how close Florida State came to losing the Fiesta Bowl:

--With less than 7 minutes to play, Nebraska had the ball on the FSU two-yard line, with a 28-24 lead. Running back Tyreese Knox fumbled it away at the three.

--With 4:05 to play, Florida State had the ball on Nebraska's two, still trailing by four points. Tailback Dexter Carter got tackled short of the end zone, got hot when the tackler twisted his ankle, lashed out at the guy with his foot--and got slapped with a dead-ball personal foul that pushed the ball back to the 18.

Undeterred, McManus won the Fiesta Bowl for Florida State by zipping a 15-yard touchdown pass to flanker Ronald Lewis on fourth down.

It was his 51st pass of the day, and a beauty.

Yet, here's how close Florida State still came to losing the Fiesta Bowl:

--With 2:35 to play, Nebraska quarterback Steve Taylor launched a 56-yard pass to wide receiver Morgan Gregory, who took it to the Florida State 2. But, the Seminoles were saved by a formation penalty against Nebraska's tight end, Tom Banderas, who misunderstood the play call, lined up on the wrong side and became an ineligible receiver.

Were it not for that mix-up, it is Nebraska that could have enjoyed an 11-1 record and whimsical notions of what might have been. Instead, the Cornhuskers find themselves in the funny position of being disappointed by a record of 10-2.

It was nobody's fault, really.

A messenger from the sideline, sophomore wingback Richard Bell, from Altadena, came into the huddle with the play: "Wide left, fake 41, counter sweep, bootleg left."

The quarterback called it, and broke the huddle.

Suddenly, Taylor realized that "41" should have been "49." Nebraska never ran a "41."

Standing over the center, Taylor tried to straighten out the team. Sorry, he said--wrong number.

It was too late, though. Banderas already had lined up wide on the wrong side, gone into a stance. Two other receivers were spread out beside him. Technically, the tight end became a tackle.

There was confusion. Gregory thought there were too many men on the line of scrimmage, so he tried to step backward. Banderas thought he was free to go out, but he hadn't declared himself a tackle eligible. Taylor, who probably should have called a timeout, took the snap.

Flag on the play.

Flag on the season.

"I'm still not sure what happened," Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne said. "I don't think anybody's going to know until we look at the film--and even then, we might not understand what went wrong."

That penalty, followed by one for intentional grounding, put the Cornhuskers so deep in the hole that they wound up with a fourth-and-43 situation on their final drive. They never got closer than Florida State's 43, and their kicker, sophomore Chris Drennan from Cypress, never got a shot at tying the score.

Florida State was lucky.

The game almost was lost in the first quarter, when Nebraska jumped to a 14-0 lead on a 3-yard touchdown run by Keith Jones and a 52-yard punt return by Dana Brinson.

Then it almost was lost in third quarter after punter Rick Tuten shanked one five yards. FSU was up 24-21 by then, but that darn Tuten gave Nebraska good field position, and 52 yards later, Knox scored on a three-yard run for a 28-24 advantage that almost held up.

"Yes, I feel lucky," Florida State's tongue-tied coach, Bobby Bowden, said later. "I feel luckier more than I feel good. But, I'd rather be lucky. It's good to be lucky."

More good than lucky on this day was McManus, the game's most valuable player. He passed left. He passed right. He passed on first down. He passed on fourth down. He passed from his own end zone. He passed near Nebraska's end zone. He passed so much, FSU's leading ground-gainer, Sammie Smith, rushed for 28 yards.

McManus' 375 passing yards broke the record of 347 set by another Florida State quarterback, Gary Huff, in the original Fiesta Bowl of 1971. His 51 attempts broke the record of 50 set last January by Miami's Vinny Testaverde, who put only 10 points on the board.

McManus threw three touchdown passes, tying the bowl record, and was intercepted once. His day would have been even better had Gainer, who caught five passes, not dropped three others, but nevertheless, the 375 yards was more than any Nebraska team has surrendered in Osborne's 15 years as coach.

Gainer was among those effusive about the quarterback's play, particularly under pressure.

"That's the thing about Danny," Gainer said. "He doesn't let anything or anybody rattle him. If there's a will, he'll find a way."

One of FSU's Carters, tailback Dexter, called McManus "very, very, very underrated," and the other one, tight end Patrick, called him "cold as ice, smooth as silk. He's my Heisman, Danny is."

The quarterback was not so cool at the beginning, throwing into traffic and getting intercepted at the Nebraska one-yard line. Before long, Brinson's punt return put the Cornhuskers on top, 14-0.

The second quarter was his, though. He rang up 21 points, first with a 10-yard gainer to Gainer, next with a drive capped by fullback Dayne Williams' four-yard run, and once more before halftime with a 25-yard bullet that hit Gainer in full stride.

McManus tried 30 passes in the half. Nebraska tried two.

The game was statistically lopsided at this point. Florida State had 17 first downs to Nebraska's 5. It had 199 passing yards to Nebraska's none. It had 18 minutes of possession time to Nebraska's 11.

After halftime, though, Taylor abandoned a wishbone attack for a moment and completed his first pass, 47 yards to Banderas. The next play was a Statue of Liberty, and Brinson raced 17 yards to the FSU 2-yard line. Taylor then sneaked for the touchdown, tying the game, 21-21.

Nebraska got nervy. Behind by three after a 32-yard Derek Schmidt field goal, the Cornhuskers took advantage of Tuten's bad punt, turned up their noses at a field goal on fourth-and-one from the Seminole four, and handed off to Knox, a third-string player from Daly City, Calif., who got not only the first down, but the touchdown.

It was Nebraska's game. Getting the ball back, the Cornhuskers ate up yardage and time, driving 62 yards in 13 plays. Less than seven minutes remained when Knox, at the two, fumbled a routine handoff into the hands of defensive tackle Eric Hayes.

Like John Elway against the Cleveland Browns, McManus took his team the length of the field. The first seven calls were passes. He completed five of them. The last of these covered 43 yards to Dexter Carter, to the Nebraska two, and Dexter took a bow in the end zone, thinking he had scored.

Florida State tried to run it in from there. Dexter, though, didn't care for the way Nebraska linebacker LeRoy Etienne twisted his ankle after a stop for no gain. He tried to kick him, and a referee saw it.

Fifteen-yard penalty.

Loss of down.

Third down on the 18, instead of second down at the 3.

"That's when Danny McManus took charge," Dexter Carter said. "He said: 'Forget about it. Let's just execute this next play.' And I said: 'Yes, sir!' When Danny says, 'Let's do it,' he's not just talking to hear himself talk."

On third down, Dexter took a three-yard pass to the 15.

Then, with the game on the line, Lewis got loose in the middle of the end zone, and McManus found him. It ended an 11-play, 97-yard drive.

"I felt like falling to my knees," Carter said. "They saved my butt, is what they did."

It was only a few minutes later that McManus was mounting a pedestal at mid-field, holding his MVP award high and yelling: "Hey! Thank y'all! Hey, offense! This is ours, man! Defense, we'll even give you a little bit!"

The 31 points scored by that offense were the most Nebraska has given up in 46 games--since a 31-30 Orange Bowl loss to Miami in 1984 that cost the team the national championship.

McManus was eager to get to a TV and watch Miami and Oklahoma in this year's Orange Bowl.

"I'll be rooting for both teams," he said.

To win?

"No. To tie," he said.

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