The Florida Citrus Bowl — site of the 2012 Capital One Bowl — has hosted hundreds of football games since opening 75 years ago.
Nebraska has played there just once, 21 years ago. But that game is a watershed moment in the school’s rich football history.
It’s the subject of this week’s Time Travel.
On Nov. 3, 1990, Nebraska led Colorado 12-0 at Memorial Stadium. It was one good quarter away from a No. 1 ranking. Instead, the Buffs scored 27 in the fourth quarter. Under Tom Osborne, Nebraska had been blown out before. But never did the team go in the tank like it did after Colorado. NU struggled with lowly Kansas, then got drilled at Oklahoma, 45-10.
In the Citrus Bowl, the Huskers were actually favored to beat undefeated ACC champion Georgia Tech. They lost 45-21.
What happened that day in Orlando represented Nebraska football’s lowest point since 1968. It caused Charlie McBride to utter this remarkable assessment after the game:
“We’ve got to get a group of players who are going to give it all they’ve got all the time. You can’t have any part-time guys. The best way to do that is if the players themselves weed them out.”
At that moment, it looked like Nebraska — which led the nation in wins during the 80s — was sliding toward a future of national irrelevancy. An increasing number of critics were saying Osborne needed to move on. Of course, four years later, Nebraska was celebrating a national title.
This is where I typically paste an excerpt of an archived World-Herald story. But today, I want to run two pieces focusing on the ’91 Citrus Bowl. The first is Mike Kelly’s column, a few days after the loss. It reflects the despair around the program. The second is actually written five years later at the program’s peak, by Lee Barfknecht. It examines the Citrus Bowl as a turning point.
I’ll paste them at the end of this column, so they don’t overwhelm the other bites. Take a few minutes and revisit a critical time in Osborne’s career — and in Nebraska football history.
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>> Ndamukong Suh returns to the field Sunday at Oakland. But his image keeps taking hits, especially in the national media (which may or may not matter to you). Dan Wetzel, the nation’s best columnist, says Suh showed no remorse for his Thanksgiving outburst — nor for allegedly lying to police after a Portland car accident.
Suh’s appearance on a Detroit radio show surely didn’t help him, either. He ended the interview when questions got uncomfortable. At this point, I don’t think words can help Suh. He just needs to put his head down, play football and stay out of the headlines the rest of the season.
>> Oh boy, Steve Pederson is about to embark on another coaching search (while a Pittsburgh columnist is calling for his head). He’s 0-for-3 since firing Frank Solich in 2003. Bill Callahan was a disaster at Nebraska. Pederson hired Mike Haywood from Miami (Ohio) last year, then fired him a few weeks later after Haywood was arrested for domestic battery. Pederson picked Todd Graham from Tulsa, who stuck around for a year before leaving Wednesday for Arizona State. Where does Pederson turn now?
The best choice is Iowa State’s Paul Rhoads, the former Pitt defensive coordinator. But considering the situation at Pitt, I’d be surprised if Rhoads accepted. I expect Pederson to wait a month, then call a press conference to tell everyone to “give us some time.” And somehow Houston Nutt (recently fired by Mississippi) will find a way to get a raise.
>> Three years ago, Turner Gill was considered (by some) as a candidate for the Auburn job. Now he may be the next head coach at Liberty University, an FCS school in Virginia. Something about that saddens me. Gill’s fall from emerging star to failed Division I coach happened too quickly. The bright side is, at Liberty, he won’t have to explain his style to administrators, boosters and media.
>> Rick Neuheisel says coaches don’t see enough football around the country to rank teams accurately. He admits that sports information directors, not coaches, usually end up filling out the ballots.
>> Carl Pelini’s job was hard enough at Florida Atlantic before Gus Malzahn joined the Sun Belt. The former Auburn offensive coordinator will bring a high-powered offense to Arkansas State. But Carl won’t be the first Pelini who gets a chance to stop Malzahn. Nebraska meets Arkansas State on Sept. 15. NU still has one game to schedule for 2012, but right now, all three non-conference foes (Southern Mississippi, Arkansas State and UCLA) will have new head coaches. That should help the Huskers.
>> Missouri administrators share details of the SEC move. As Big 12 South schools were flirting with the Pac-12 in September, Brady Deaton was thinking, “What is God’s name are we going to do?”
>> The Big Ten bloggers at ESPN use the skills of the league’s 12 head coaches to build the perfect coach. Good stuff.
>> Outkick The Coverage ranks the top 25 coaching jobs in college football. Nebraska is 19th. Texas is No. 1, followed by Florida, Alabama, Florida State and LSU. I think Ohio State (ranked 7th) and USC (8th) should be in the top 5. And Penn State (11th) and North Carolina (12th) are way too high.
>> OK, back to Husker history…
Here’s Mike Kelly, from January 1991:
Sitting in the pressbox Tuesday at the Citrus Bowl, it was almost possible to hear the moans and groans emanating from the living rooms of Nebraska fans as they watched the first predictable plays of the Husker offense.
Georgia Tech already had taken a 7-0 lead in a 70-yard drive that twice converted on third down.
Reports from the Husker camp were that NU had practiced moving the ball around, getting it to their talented receivers and generally opening things up. So the opening plays were greeted with a sense of anticipation — what would it be?
A screen to the I-back? Over the middle to tight end Johnny Mitchell? A reverse to split end Jon Bostick?
No. It was I-back over left tackle for 3 yards, I-back up the middle for 3 yards, incomplete pass on third down, and punt. Second possession started with I-back up the middle. Third possession began with fullback up the middle. The fourth started with I-back right.
In the four first-quarter possessions, Nebraska had netted 22 yards in 14 plays, one first down. Even though the Huskers made a nice second-quarter comeback to cut a 21-0 deficit to 21-14, that opening had set the tone.
The fifth possession started with I-back up the middle (fumble, recovered by Georgia Tech and converted into a touchdown two plays later) and the sixth with I-back-right for a yard.
It wasn’t until NU trailed 21-0 and things were getting desperate that the Huskers injected some variety into the offense. It’s an old story in Nebraska. The offense works against outmanned teams, but not against good ones.
Nebraska converted only 1 of 13 third downs in the Citrus Bowl. In NU’s three losses, the Huskers converted a combined — I’m not making this up — 6 of 45.
This is not about entertaining the fans, but about entertaining possibilities. Look around and see how the good teams are doing it.
The Cornhuskers will have a lot of good players returning, and the foundation of the program is solid, but in many ways things are in disarray. The sky isn’t falling, but it is gray.
The lousy opening in the 45-21 loss to Georgia Tech can’t be explained away by saying that quarterback Mike Grant couldn’t hit the side of a barn with his passes, which he couldn’t. It’s more than that.
Tech Coach Bobby Ross said after the game that the one thing he feared about the Huskers was their kickoff returns, and that comment spoke volumes. No longer do good teams fear the Husker offense, and the vaunted NU defense virtually collapsed in the final four games.
Grant said before the bowl game that there was a lot of internal finger-pointing on the team. Nate Turner said after the game that there was dissension.
Leodis Flowers complained about not carrying the ball enough. Scott Baldwin fumbled in the second quarter and later creamed a punt returner who was already on his knees after signaling a fair catch, a senseless 15-yard penalty that set up still another score.
Frank Solich, running backs coach, said he has a pecking order in mind for his I-backs going into spring practice, but wouldn’t say what it is. It’s clear to everyone that freshman Derek Brown is the best of the lot, a potential All-American if NU can come up with an offensive line.
NU gave up 90 points the last two games. A beleaguered Charlie McBride, defensive coordinator, whose unit was said to be the strength of the team, said the defense wasn’t prepared well enough for the Citrus Bowl because of coaches’ recruiting duties, and that he needs to find players who will give their all — all of the time.
The hints are obvious enough. We no longer have to read between the lines. The Huskers are not sufficiently focused to contend for national honors, and as much as you hate to say this, not dropping out of the Top 25 may have sent the wrong message to the players.
NU finished 24th in AP and 17th in UPI, losing to the three good teams on its schedule and beating no team of great consequence. What other program but Nebraska — apparently because of its reputation and tradition — could fail to drop out the way the Huskers played the last four games?
Tech’s Ross said a key to his team’s success against Nebraska was staying “very, very focused” the entire time in Orlando. NU’s starting fullback and some other players missed the game because of curfew violations.
It’s time to start a new tradition at Nebraska, a new intensity and focusing whose goal is not necessarily to win a national championship but to play together all the time and to play hard all the time. And play excited.
NU’s Mike Petko said the tougher schedule next year, rather than what we’ve seen the last two seasons, will better prepare the team for later on. NU opens with Utah, Colorado State, Washington and Arizona State.
A bad ending to the 1990 season doesn’t mean things can’t get better in the future. Maybe the three resounding losses will shake things up. For Nebraska, this is a time of great opportunity.
And here’s Lee Barfknecht, from December 1995:
The Nebraska football program, which raced into national championship contention eight times in the 1980s, couldn’t keep up the pace as a new decade began.
In 1990, the Huskers lost three of their final four games — a first in the Bob Devaney-Tom Osborne coaching era that began in 1962. Those setbacks dropped NU to 24th in the Associated Press poll, the lowest end-of-the-season ranking in Osborne’s 23-year career.
Several staff members interviewed last week said the sting of those losses was intensified by the manner in which Nebraska fell to Colorado, Oklahoma and Citrus Bowl opponent Georgia Tech.
Offensively, NU’s normally powerhouse rushing attack averaged 136 yards in those games. Defensively, the Huskers allowed 27 points in the fourth quarter to Colorado and 45 points each to Oklahoma and Georgia Tech. No team had scored 45 points against Nebraska since 1968.
“The end of that season was our low point in about a 30-year period,” said Director of Athletic Performance Boyd Epley, in his 26th year at NU. “There was internal stuff happening that the general public never realized was going on.
“So Coach Osborne asked that we re-evaluate every phase of the program — from recruiting to the strength program to anything and anybody involved.”
Former Husker Assistant Kevin Steele remembers those meetings.
“Some guys were a little embarrassed that Nebraska had lost two or three games it hadn’t been losing in previous years,” said Steele, now the linebackers coach for the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. “It was a pretty big challenge to the guys who run the program.”
Steele said major philosophical changes weren’t discussed. Nebraska was still winning nine games a season.
“It was more a refocusing on some things,” he said. “It was the head coach stepping in and saying, ‘Hey, this thing doesn’t look quite like I want it to look. So we need to do this, this and this.’ “
With some retooling, Nebraska began its climb back into the Top 10. The Huskers were 15th in 1991, 14th in 1992, third in 1993 and national champions in 1994.
Now, at the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, the top-ranked Huskers will play in a national championship-deciding game for the third straight season, which is believed to be a college football first.
A victory Jan. 2 over No. 2 Florida would make NU the first repeat champion since Alabama in 1978 and 1979, and the first consensus back-to-back titlist since Oklahoma in 1955 and 1956.
“There has been a little luck involved,” Osborne said. “On the other hand, I really feel we’ve played well enough to win 36 straight times.
“The one we did lose, we were a little unfortunate. So we’ve played at a very high level in this stretch.”
A dozen interviews with people in the program yielded nearly a dozen factors that have contributed to the current Husker success story. Among them:
A general increase in overall talent. A new attitude on strength and conditioning. More attention to recruiting speed. The arrival of quarterback Tommie Frazier. The change to a 4-3 defense. Creation of the Unity Council. Simplification of some offensive and defensive assignments. Better confidence among players in big games.
“And then there are some things that you can’t logically write down in a newspaper article,” NU Receivers Coach Ron Brown said. “It has something to do with a sovereignty that says, ‘It’s just time for Nebraska.’
“Whatever the exact reasons are, a lot of the right buttons have been pushed.”
When did the current surge of button-pushing begin?
“January 17, 1991,” Epley said. “That was the first day players gathered for winter conditioning after we lost so bad in the Citrus Bowl.”
During the 1990 season, Epley said, Husker players averaged 30 absences a day from strength and conditioning sessions.
“It was the low point in my involvement with Nebraska,” Epley said. “I wasn’t doing the best job because that was the time we were opening our new facility and I was spending so much time with that.”
Upon closer review, Epley said he found “a problem with attitude and discipline.”
“And unity wasn’t just a problem among players,” he said. “There was a lack of unity among support staffs.”
Epley said Osborne mediated a dispute between some trainers who were telling linemen to avoid squat lifts in the weight room for fear of irritating previous injuries and strength coaches who said squats were the key to those players getting stronger.
The squat lifts were approved, which Epley called a crucial decision because a national study at the time comparing strength levels by position showed NU’s offensive line had slipped compared to that of other perennially ranked teams.
“The strength level had gotten away to the point where it was costing us on the field,” Epley said. “But we got our problems corrected to the point that four years later, with the coaches’ help, those guys became not only the best offensive line in Nebraska history but in the nation.”
Other players got stronger in the winter of 1991, too, because they showed up to work out more often. Epley said a rule was passed that more than one absence from a workout meant dismissal from the team.
“We had over 6,500 workouts by 200 players before our first absence,” he said. “Our athletes applied themselves so well that at the end of winter conditioning, when they normally would break 15 to 18 school records, they broke 78. That turned things around.”
At the end of spring football in May 1991, Epley said, Husker coaches said they had seen “some back sliding” and wanted a way to apply the discipline created in winter conditioning year round.
By coincidence at the time, Epley said, he was in the process of renewing his driver’s license. So he suggested that a point system for discipline similar to that for driving violations be created.
“The coaches really liked the idea because it didn’t matter who recruited the kid or what state he was from or what race he was,” Epley said. “It was fair for everyone. And it included academics and football, not just strength and conditioning.”
In August 1991, Epley said, the disciplinary point system was formalized and the Unity Council — a group of two players from each position — was formed with the help of team psychologist Jack Stark. The Unity Council acts as a sounding board between the players and coaches.
Brown said the Unity Council allows the players to feel some ownership in the team.
“The coaches still make the final decisions,” he said. “But it’s not all just orders from the top down. So when adversity strikes, we’re going to be together. And handling adversity is crucial.
“We had some adversity in the 1990 season and we didn’t handle it very well. But in 1991, we started the Unity Council and that’s when we started our string of Big Eight championships. Are you going to say that’s the reason we’ve won five straight? Not totally. But that’s an important cog.”
Nebraska tied for the Big Eight title in 1991, but two games that season provided a further wakeup call to the program. Washington gained 618 yards — the most against NU in 35 years — in a 36-21 victory in Lincoln. And Miami handed the Huskers their first shutout in 19 seasons, 22-0 in the Orange Bowl.
“In watching Washington and Miami sting us, you could see a speed deficit,” Steele said. “At that point, some recruiting philosophies took a swing – not just at Nebraska but around the country. It was a reaction to those two teams.”
Were the speedier players Nebraska began to recruit also better overall players?
“I guess I haven’t seen any huge leap in talent,” Osborne said. “But we are talented.”
Brown said he thinks NU’s recruiting has been upgraded in recent years.
“Not every player on our team is a great player,” he said. “But we have several great players — guys who are difference-makers at their position.
“The supporting cast is good, too. When you combine great character with great players, a lot of great things happen.”
In 1992, a defensive turnaround began. Nebraska found enough overall success with its 4-3 “dime” package designed to stop the pass that in the spring of 1993 it junked the 5-2 defense used the previous 31 years.
“The kids love to play the 4-3,” Defensive Coordinator Charlie McBride said. “I don’t want to say it’s a less disciplined defense, but it’s freer and less complicated. And when we found cornerbacks who could cover man to man, it gave us a chance to attack instead of read and react.”
From 49th nationally in total defense in 1991, Nebraska went to 24th in 1992, 12th in 1993, fourth in 1994 and 13th in 1995.
“There were some great teams at Nebraska where the defense wasn’t always considered that good,” Steele said. “But Charlie and the rest of the defensive staff don’t feel that way anymore.
“The past three or four years, they have felt they can play defense with anybody.”
About the time the defense was simplified, some changes were made on the other side of the ball, too.
Dan Young, assistant offensive line coach, said the focus became zone blocking — having a lineman responsible for an area instead of a specific defender.
“We don’t have as many schemes now,” he said. “But what we do, we do pretty well.
”On about five plays, we use the same blocking. That simplifies the amount of learning and allows you to do more adjusting.”
As on defense, Young said, simplifying things on offense created good results.
“It turned loose the kids’ physical ability,” he said. “Instead of thinking about a hundred things, they began to react more to what came up. Our guys on offense have become a lot more aggressive.”
The 1992 season also marked the arrival of the first true freshman to start at quarterback for Nebraska since World War II — Tommie Frazier.
Since entering the lineup in the sixth game of 1992, Frazier has gone 32-3 as a starter, earned consensus All-America honors and placed second in this year’s Heisman Trophy voting.
Osborne cautioned against naming Frazier as the lone key to the current run of success.
“We won some big games last year when he was hurt,” Osborne said. “But he has been a big factor.
“I would say if I were to choose one player who has had the most impact on the outcome of the greatest number of games over the longest period of time since I’ve been at Nebraska, it would be Tommie Frazier.”
As 1993 began, coaches said, another minor change had a major impact.
Instead of having the top units practice almost exclusively against scout teams, the No. 1 offense and No. 1 defense began facing off against each other in full contact two to three times a week.
“When you work against ‘the betters,’ you get better,” Steele said. “And it showed. Again, that was one of the things the head coach had us refocus on — what we were getting out of our time in practice. No details were left unchecked.”
During the 1993 season, some of the luck Osborne referred to appeared.
The Huskers survived a minus-four turnover margin at UCLA to win 14-13. And Kansas missed a two-point conversion try in the final minute, allowing NU to escape with a 21-20 victory and stay undefeated in the regular season.
In the Orange Bowl, Nebraska was a 17-point underdog to Florida State and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Charlie Ward. But the Huskers, who saw a punt return touchdown nullified by penalty, had a chance to win on the game’s final play. Byron Bennett’s field goal try was wide, allowing FSU to win 18-16 and claim the national title.
Though it was a loss, coaches and players say that game was a mental victory after having lost the five previous bowls by an average of 21 points.
“That to me was the turning point of what’s been happening the past two years,” Young said. “We used to go into those games hoping we could do something.
“Now, the guys go in with the attitude that they will do something.”
Senior wingback Clester Johnson agreed.
“Since that game, I’ve felt we would never lose again,” he said. “No matter what the situation, we feel we have seen it, we’ve been in it and we know what to do about it.”
Johnson’s feeling has held true. Nebraska has won a school record-tying 24 straight games since that loss to FSU.
“It’s a pretty exciting era we’re in right now,” Epley said. “Now I think we’re probably the best we’ve ever been.”
All-America center Aaron Graham said the final credit has to go to Osborne, the assistant coaches and the program.
“It was just a matter of time before this program hit the top again,” said the senior from Denton, Texas. “We’ve been in or near the Top 10 forever, but something finally clicked to produce that first national championship in 23 years.
“I feel fortunate to have been here during that time. And not to take anything away from the guys here now, but if this hadn’t happened while we were here, it was going to again at some point. That’s how good this place is.”