Friday, December 13, 2002
1988 - Florida State 31, Nebraska 28
One point. One single, lousy point. It may be all that separated Florida State from earning its first national title some six years earlier than history would allow.
The 1987 season marked the beginning of the Bobby Bowden legacy in Tallahassee as we know it today. Coming off an unmemorable 7-4-1 campaign the year before, the Seminoles entered the season ranked No. 8 by the Associated Press thanks to returning players like senior QB Danny McManus and All-American CB Deion Sanders. All they did once the games began was bolster that standing behind a high-powered offense that scored over 30 points on 10 occasions. A 26-25 loss to Heisman Trophy winner Vinny Testeverde and Miami (Fla.) was their only blemish.
Because of that loss, the 10-1 Seminoles' national title hopes were slim entering their New Year's Day Fiesta Bowl matchup with No. 5 Nebraska. That's because No. 2 Miami, the team they'd come so close to slaying, would be clashing with No. 1 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.
Still, FSU had plenty to play for in Tempe, Ariz. After all, this was a program whose highest previous national finish was No. 5, seven years earlier. Meanwhile, Tom Osborne's Cornhuskers arrived still peeved after blowing their own opportunity at a title with their late-season loss to the Sooners.
Nebraska exploded out of the gates, jumping to a 14-0 first-quarter lead on Dana Brinson's 52-yard punt return for a touchdown. But FSU, sparked by its defense, would own the second quarter. A key Sanders interception set up McManus to drive 40 yards in six plays, hitting receiver Herb Gainer on a 10-yard TD pass that made it 14-7. Then, when Nebraska appeared to be setting up to score again, Paul McGown recovered a fumble at the FSU 25, and again McManus orchestrated a TD drive.
The 'Noles went to the half up 21-14 after McManus hooked up with Gainer again for 25 yards and a TD with 44 seconds remaining.
The momentum would continue to shift throughout the third quarter, but one thing was quickly becoming clear. After thriving all season behind the phenomenal production of RB Sammie Smith (172 carries, 1,230 yards), FSU could not run on Nebraska's punishing front seven, which included the likes of DE Neil Smith and LB Broderick Thomas. Smith would wind up with only 28 yards on nine carries.
But McManus was on fire all day, completing passes to 10 different receivers.
With 6:38 left in the game, FSU took over at its own 3-yard line, trailing 28-24. McManus led the 'Noles down the field yet again, gaining crucial yards on a 43-yard pass to tailback Dexter Carter. They were nearing the end zone, though, when a dead-ball foul set the ball back on the Nebraska 18. Down to a daunting fourth-and-goal situation from the 15-yard line, McManus hit WR Danny Lewis in the end zone for the go-ahead score with only 3:07 remaining.
Nebraska would give the 72,112 fans at Sun Devil Stadium reason to stay in their seats until the very end. Husker QB Steve Taylor attempted to get his team into at least field-goal range, and even completed a 58-yard pass to Morgan Gregory. But the play was called back on a holding penalty, and FSU would hold on for the 31-28 win. McManus was named offensive player of the game after throwing for a Fiesta Bowl-record 385 yards. His 51 attempts (28 were completions) were also a Fiesta high.
McManus, now a quarterback in the Canadian Football League, recalled recently how out-of-character his performance was in that game. "We had to keep throwing the ball to keep even with Nebraska since (QB) Steve Taylor was running them up and down the field," he said. "That was the most passes I ever threw at Florida State. Normally, coach Bowden would let my farthest pass be a 4-yard backwards to Sammie Smith and Dexter Carter."
Miami would upset Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl to claim the national title, and FSU would finish No. 2, one spot - and one point - behind the Hurricanes. The seemingly once-in-a-lifetime season only began a remarkable string of AP Top Four finishes for Bowden and FSU that still continues today.