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Nightmare Becomes Dream : Orange Bowl: After years of being haunted by missed kicks in big games, Florida State finally is the beneficiary in 18-16 victory over Nebraska.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a game for the ages, or more precisely, a game that aged Bobby Bowden and anyone else who survived Florida State’s 18-16 victory over a Nebraska team that probably is being treated for shock.

In a bizarre ending that crammed enough emotion, tension and confusion to last a lifetime, the No. 1 Seminoles watched in agony as Nebraska kicker Byron Bennett’s 45-yard attempt sailed high and left of the uprights as time expired.

Only 21 seconds earlier, Florida State freshman Scott Bentley had kicked his fourth field goal of Saturday evening, a 22-yarder that put the Seminoles ahead by two. The national championship that Bowden craved, the one that had eluded him for his 28-year career, finally seemed his for the taking.

But nothing comes easy for the 64-year-old coach, who saw the Seminoles penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct after Bentley’s go-ahead kick. Instead of kicking from its 35-yard line, Florida State had to tee off from its 20. Dan Mowrey’s kick squirted into Kareem Moss’ hands, and he returned it to the Nebraska 43 with 14 seconds remaining in the game.

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Cornhusker quarterback Tommie Frazier’s first pass fell incomplete. Seven seconds were left.

Frazier dropped back for a final desperation pass. He found tight end Trumane Bell open down the middle of the field. The completion to Bell covered 29 yards. Better yet for the Cornhuskers, Bell’s knee touched the Orange Bowl turf with one second remaining on the clock.

Of course, no one knew that at first. According to the scoreboard, there was no time left to play. Florida State fans stormed the field. Seminole players happily danced away. Bowden, soaked after an ice water shower, began to make his way across the field in search of Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne.

But then, after about a five-minute delay, officials shooed the teams of the turf, placed the ball at the Florida State 28-yard line, put one second on the clock and then watched history take its course.

A stunned, confused Bowden returned to the sidelines. Meanwhile, Osborne called a timeout, Nebraska’s last, and then sent Bennett onto the field for the kick. If he makes it, Osborne wins his first national championship and ends a six-game bowl losing streak.

Bennett missed. Florida State, which had lost at least two shots at national titles because of missed field-goal tries in recent years, savored the sight.

“Today, we finally won one when someone missed a kick,” Bowden said afterward.

Cornhusker players dropped to the ground in exhausted disbelief. What had been theirs--a lead, an undefeated season and a national title--was gone.

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“Did we win or lose this one?” Bowden said. “It’s hard to believe you won the doggone game. Every time I looked up, someone else was winning.”

Now it is left to the poll voters. Florida State ends its season 12-1, its only loss at the hands of Notre Dame at South Bend in mid-November. As for the Irish, they beat Texas A&M; in the Cotton Bowl on Saturday and finished their season with an 11-1 record, the defeat coming at home against Boston College. Previously undefeated West Virginia blew its opportunity at the title when it was routed by Florida, 41-7, in the Sugar Bowl.

Notre Dame Coach Lou Holtz will argue that his team deserves the championship because of the victory over the Seminoles. And who could blame him? Bowden offered another view.

“What would I tell the voters?” Bowden said. “So if it comes down to us and Notre Dame, I personally feel like Florida State and Notre Dame are the two best teams in the country. I think you need to take the championship on the basis of the season, not one ballgame.

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“I really think Florida State should win a national championship.”

If it happens, the Seminoles will forever remember their final drive of the season. It began at the Florida State 35 with 1:46 to play. It ended with Bentley’s winning kick.

But in between, there was Orange Bowl MVP Charlie Ward completing passes when it counted the most. And then, when Nebraska could least afford a mistake, there was cornerback Barron Miles committing a personal foul against tailback Warrick Dunn long after the Seminole player had run out of bounds.

The late-hit infraction helped move the ball to the Nebraska 18. Two plays later, Ward lofted a ball for wide receiver Kez McCorvey, who had safety Toby Wright draped on his back. Pass interference and first and goal at the Nebraska three. One play after that, Bentley kicked the field goal that fulfilled the remaining gap in Bowden’s career.

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“I guess it was just our time,” Bowden said.

There is a certain symmetry to Florida State’s victory against the Cornhuskers. Fourteen years ago in Lincoln, Neb., Bowden brought his little-known team to Memorial Stadium and scored an 18-14 victory against the then-No. 3 Cornhuskers. Bowden would later call it the biggest victory of his career, a claim that didn’t surprise Nebraska defensive coordinator Charlie McBride.

“We put a lot of people in business, let’s put it that way,” McBride said earlier this week.

Now Bowden will have to amend his list. As usual, he has Nebraska to thank.

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It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Despite the bloated point spread, the Cornhuskers truly believed that this year’s game would be different. Frazier, one of the best option quarterbacks in the nation, had a full season’s worth of experience. The last time he faced Florida State, the nervous Frazier had played in only six games.

Then there was the new and improved Nebraska defense, which had been redesigned with the Florida States and Miamis in mind. Gone was the traditional five-man defensive front, replaced by a 4-3 setup that took advantage of the Cornhuskers’ speed and star linebacker Trev Alberts. In fact, Seminole linebacker coach Jim Gladden had visited Nebraska’s spring practice last year and shared some of Florida State’s 4-3 secrets with the Cornhusker staff.

And as always there was the beefy Nebraska offensive line, which this time outweighed Florida State’s defensive line by an average of 32 pounds, and an I-back to be proud of, 1,000-yard rusher Calvin Jones. Nebraska coaches had hoped to do what Notre Dame did in its Nov. 13 upset of the Seminoles--that is, control the ball on the ground, use the option and pass only when necessary. It worked for the Irish, who gained 239 rushing yards and scored four times by the run.

But something happens to Nebraska when it reaches the postseason. Maybe it is the quality of competition or simply the weight of their bowl losing streak. Whatever the reason, the Cornhuskers have made losing a New Year’s tradition.

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Entering Saturday night’s game, Nebraska hadn’t led a bowl game since the second quarter of the 1990 Fiesta Bowl. The whole thing has become as predictable as harvest time: The Cornhuskers, at least during the previous six bowls, would arrive with gaudy statistics and promptly commit double the turnovers and gain half the yards they averaged during the regular season.

This time the Cornhuskers played as well, if not better than, Florida State. But they also made those key errors--Frazier, who finished 13 of 24 for 206 yards and one touchdown, threw two interceptions, including a killer late in the fourth period.

Alberts did his part--three sacks--and the Cornhuskers had five in all.

Jones got hurt, but true freshman Lawrence Phillips filled in nicely, gaining 64 yards and rushing for one touchdown.

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Still, they couldn’t win. They quieted the oddsmakers and critics who had said Florida State deserved to be a 17-point favorite, but when they had their chance, the Cornhuskers were unable to leave with a victory.

Apparently Florida State center Clay Shiver knew something that the oddsmakers didn’t: Nebraska was no pushover.

“We’d love to put them away early, but it’s not going to happen,” Shiver said as kickoff approached.

As it turned out, not much of anything happened in the first half--especially a Florida State runaway. The Seminoles, who had worried that gaudy point spread would motivate Nebraska, soon discovered that the Cornhuskers were serious about ending their bowl slump.

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The first hint that there would be no blowout occurred during Florida State’s second possession of the game. With the ball on the Nebraska 10-yard line, the Seminoles proceeded to lose 20 yards in three plays. To make matters worse, the inconsistent Bentley missed a 47-yard attempt wide left to end the drive.

With less than two minutes remaining in the first period, the Cornhuskers saw a 71-yard punt return nullified by an illegal block. It cost Nebraska a touchdown that in the end proved decisive.


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