Tempe, Ariz. (Jan. 1, 1988)
The Nebraska / Florida State series in the 1980s was always very competitive. Prior to the 1988 Fiesta Bowl, the teams hooked up four times, with each team winning two games.
This bowl game was sort of a national championship consolation, as NU and FSU each lost only one time, to one of the two teams playing in the national championship. The Huskers lost to Oklahoma, while the Seminoles lost to Miami.
The two things Nebraska had in its favor were that it had beaten FSU the year before, and it had played at the Fiesta Bowl a little more than three months earlier, defeating Arizona State in September.
“We played Florida State so many times and felt that this field was our second home. We played there before and were used to it,” NU wingback Richard Bell said.
The Huskers looked used to it as they stormed out of the gates behind Bell. He set up Nebraska’s first score by receiving a punt at the FSU 46 and returning it 27 yards to the 19-yard line.
NU drove 19 yards on three plays, the big play coming on a late option pitch from quarterback Steve Taylor to I-back Keith Jones for 17 yards. Jones then took it in for the final three yards for the touchdown.
Florida State marched down the field to answer, going to the Nebraska 18 with 5:50 left in the first quarter, but a Danny McManus pass was intercepted by safety Brian Washington at the one-yard line and returned to the 36.
FSU forced a punt and got the ball back, but was unable to move it against NU’s defense. That forced a punt and another spectacular play from the Husker special teams.
This time Dana Brinson took the punt and ran untouched 52 yards for the touchdown. Three of Brinson’s teammates joined him in the end zone to do a dance, something more expected from Miami players.
Up 14-0 after one quarter, Nebraska looked like a team on a mission to send the Seminoles packing for home early. But the first-quarter stats were dominated by FSU. The Seminoles had 85 total yards compared to 43 (all rushing) for Nebraska, and held a 10:16 to 4:44 time-of-possession advantage.
So FSU knew it had to stick with its game plan, and that it had too much talent not to make a game of it. And boy, did FSU come back with a vengeance in the second quarter, led by its defense.
All-American cornerback Deion Sanders set up the first FSU touchdown when he intercepted a Taylor pass. That led to a 40-yard six-play drive as McManus hit receiver Herb Gainer for a 10-yard touchdown, making it 14-7.
Nebraska struck back, putting together a nice drive, but Taylor fumbled on the option and Butkus Award winner Paul McGowan recovered it at the FSU 25.
McManus again moved his team down the field, setting up their run offense in the red zone. Fullback Dayne Williams took the ball over on the left side from four yards out for the tying score.
McManus, who was named offensive player of the game after throwing for a Fiesta Bowl-record 385 yards on 51 attempts (with 28 completions), led one final drive before the end of the half. Gainer once again was the recipient of a touchdown pass, this time from 25 yards out, with only 44 seconds left.
Florida State was up 21-14, and also dominated the stat line at half. FSU had a 17-5 advantage in first downs, and had 272 total yards (199 passing), while Nebraska had 112 yards, all on the ground (NU was 0-2 passing).
That passing stat must not have sat well with the Huskers, as on their opening drive in the third quarter (which covered 77 yards), Nebraska moved the ball down the field, thanks in part to a big play in the passing game.
Taylor ran a play-action fake out of the wishbone and hit tight end Tom Banderas for 48 yards to the Florida State 19. Then NU ran the Statue of Liberty play, with Taylor handing it off to Brinson, who took it 17 yards to the two-yard line. Taylor then snuck it up the middle for a touchdown to tie the game at 21.
After a 32-yard field goal by the Seminoles, the Nebraska offense kept the pressure on, getting the ball back in prime field position due to a five-yard punt by FSU. I-back Tyreese Knox finished off a 52-yard drive with a four-yard touchdown run to make it 28-24 for the Huskers.
“We were from the Big 8, and it was all about physical play, establishing the run and imposing your will on your opponent,” said Jones, who led NU in rushing with 80 yards. “Florida State was not that physical, but had finesse with speed.”
Florida State was held to 82 yards on the ground, including just 28 by their star tailback Sammie Smith, who had averaged 123 yards per game rushing during the regular season.
Nebraska finished the game with 242 yards rushing on 54 carries, and slowly and methodically moved the ball down the field midway through the fourth quarter for what seemed to be a clinching touchdown, as it would give them a 35-24 lead.
On that drive, with just over eight minutes to go, Nebraska had a chance to go up by two scores with a touchdown pass. From the FSU 19, Taylor called a play-action fake out of the wishbone and ran left. Instead of throwing to a wide-open Banderas in the end zone, Taylor rolled right and ran for nine yards.
Then the play of the game happened, with just under seven minutes left. On second and goal from the two-yard line, Taylor handed off to Knox, who never secured the ball and fumbled while trying to avoid the center, who got pushed back to him. The play ended a 14-play 72-yard drive for Nebraska and gave the Seminoles a new life.
FSU took over and needed 97 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. They did just that, but needed a big play and some luck to do so.
McManus, who passed on FSU’s first seven plays of the drive (completing five for 95 yards), made the big play with a 43-yard pass to Dexter Carter, who took it to the two-yard line. But Nebraska stuffed FSU on two running plays, and on the second one Florida State was called for a dead ball personal foul on Carter. That moved the ball back to the 18-yard line.
On third down, McManus threw a three-yard pass to tight end Pat Carter, setting up a fourth-and-goal from the 15.
All Nebraska had to do was hold the Seminoles out of the end zone and they would win. But McManus, who threw to ten different receivers on the day, had time in the pocket and threw to an open Ronald Lewis for the winning touchdown with 3:07 left.
"We had to keep throwing the ball to keep even with Nebraska, since Steve Taylor was running them up and down the field," McManus told BCSfootball.com years later. "That was the most passes I ever threw at Florida State. Normally, Coach (Bobby) Bowden would let my farthest pass be four yards backwards to Sammie Smith and Dexter Carter."
But NU had one last drive in it and almost pulled out the win, if not for a penalty. With 2:36 left in the game, Taylor ran left and hit split end Morgan Gregory by the sideline. Gregory followed the blocking of Bell all the way down to the FSU two-yard line for a 56-yard gain.
Unfortunately, Nebraska was called for a five-yard penalty for illegal formation, negating the play.
“I called the play, which was wide left 59 fake 9 hook,” Taylor said. “I was going through my cadence; I noticed Tom Banderas was lined up on the wrong side, but I was too far in and we were running out of time, so I just hoped the referee would miss it. I throw the pass to Morgan Gregory and he took it all the way down to the two-yard line. I looked around and didn’t see any flags so I thought we got away with it, but then I turned around and the flag was right behind me.”
Despite the penalty, NU still was able to put together a drive, moving to the Florida State 42. But an intentional grounding penalty on Taylor with about 1:50 to go squashed any hope of at least a chance at a game-tying field goal attempt.
“We had a chance to finish ranked No. 2 or 3 in the nation and beat Florida State two straight years,” Taylor lamented on the heartbreaking loss.
Bowden knew his team dodged a bullet when Nebraska fumbled that ball near the goal line.
“It is sometimes better to be lucky than good,” Bowden said.
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Shane Gilster is the Editor of Big Red Report Magazine. His stories focus mainly on catching up with former Huskers and examining Nebraska athletic history.