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Big Red Hearts Orange Crushed

No eye is dry today, from Omaha to Ogallala, from Grand Island to Lincoln. The University of Nebraska had the national championship, gave it back, got it back and then saw it fly away again, all in a span of 76 seconds, in an Orange Bowl game Saturday night that provided college football with a season that was thrilling until its final play.

Playing splendidly, overcoming injuries, overcoming the odds, making fools of those who suggested they had no business being on the same field with Florida State, the inspired Cornhuskers came as close as can be to being undefeated and traveling home to the heartland with joy in their hearts. Had Byron Bennett’s last-second kick been a wee bit straighter, Nebraskans today would be sitting not in the middle of America but on top of the world.

Instead, they collapsed into prone positions at midfield, writhing in anguish as happy fans from Florida State danced all around them.

Out there among the fallen was Lawrence Phillips, an 18-year-old from West Covina who came through when Nebraska needed him most, running for the touchdown that put his school back in the hunt.

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Out there also was Trev Alberts, as good a linebacker as the college game has, who personally put Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward flat on his back three times as part of Nebraska’s five-sack quarterback attack.

Out there was Tommie Frazier, the elusive Nebraska quarterback who originally hails from Florida, who slipped through holes beautifully on quarterback draws, found his receivers when time was all but up and arguably outplayed Ward in the game of his life.

Nearly all of them were out there, more than a hundred Nebraska players who dressed for the game, who gave their all on the field or yelled for those who did. There was Calvin Jones, the fine tailback who strapped his pads back on after throwing his shoulder out of joint. There was Abdul Muhammad, the sure-handed little pass-catcher from Compton who was taken to the locker room needing X-rays on his ribs. Somewhere there was even Lorenzo Brinkley, the senior linebacker whose last game for Nebraska left him with a busted leg.

All of them gave all they had.

Few had given them a chance. Some had not even taken them seriously. One of Florida State’s cornerbacks, Clifton Abraham, had gone so far as to mock the typical Nebraska player in the days before the game, describing one as a “big boy, probably drives an old pickup truck, a ’76, a little rust . . . overalls, probably a hat, straw in his mouth, chewin’ his chaw.” Abraham had to find out the hard way how tough these big boys were, spending much of the night getting his chaw chewed.

Frazier found receivers whenever and wherever he needed them. He even found Reggie Baul, another 5-8 peanut who along with Muhammad and Corey Dixon form what is known around Lincoln as the “Itty-Bitty Committee,” a trio of pint-sized pass receivers. Aiming for one target, Frazier’s pass was tipped into the fingertips of Baul, the first ball Baul had caught in six games, for an immaculate reception of a touchdown.

That one gave notice that Nebraska was not going to get pounded by four or five touchdowns, the way so many had moronically forecast. Take, for example, Jim Mandich, the former Miami Dolphin player, who in a local television segment on the eve of the game called the Cornhuskers “fraudulent, phony . . . this isn’t much of a national championship game.” Like heck it wasn’t.

On came Phillips, the true freshman who had dazzled UCLA with 137 yards rushing near the beginning of the season. He split a seam in the Florida State defense and ran into the end zone practically untouched, and suddenly Nebraska was a two-point conversion away from tying the score. It was the sort of run he had done so many times for Coach Tony Zane while at Baldwin Park High, where he had scored 25 such touchdowns and rushed for 1,752 yards.

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Frazier was doing it all, faking reverses, finding receivers. After he failed to run across the extra points himself, all Frazier wanted was one more crack, and he got it with the clock winding down. He pitched to Phillips on an option play that sprang for 17 yards to the Nebraska 37. He passed to Clester Johnson for a first down at the Florida State 48. He ran a quarterback draw for eight more yards, then made a 19-yard connection aided by a facemask penalty that moved the football four yards shy of the goal.

Bennett kicked the field goal that gave Nebraska everything--the game, the unbeaten season, the national title. Nobody dreamed that Nebraska would let Florida State get back in the game with two costly, ghastly penalties. Same as nobody dreamed that Nebraska would come back again , finding Trumane Bell, calling time just in the nick of time, giving Bennett a chance to be a hero twice.

But there was no justice for Bennett, who graduated last month with a degree in criminal justice. His kick veered wide to the left. Nebraska was defeated, then victorious, then defeated. It was as good a football game as most of the Cornhuskers were capable of playing. It is a game it will take them a lifetime to forget.


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