Husker Football National Champions 1994-1995-1997
SHARKFEET Husker Football
1994 Husker Football Season Unfinished Bussiness
Byron Bennett's 45-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left in the final second of Nebraska's 18-16 loss to Florida State in the 1994 Orange Bowl game. With that miss, an 11-game Cornhusker winning streak ended. And the run to Coach Tom Osborne's first national championship began.
Nebraska's focus for the 1994 season was finishing the business that had been left incomplete on the night of Jan. 1, 1994, in Miami. The actual process started with a 31-0 victory against West Virginia in the Kickoff Classic in late August, and it concluded with a come-from-behind, 24-17 victory against Miami, on its home field, in the 1995 Orange Bowl game. To a degree, that game characterized the season.
An important sub-plot to the drama of 1994 involved the Cornhusker quarterbacks. Junior Tommie Frazier, a two-year starter, opened the season as if he might run away with the Heisman Trophy before being sidelined by blood clot problems in his right knee after the fourth game.
Frazier's misfortune represented an opportunity for junior Brook Berringer, who came off the bench to lead Nebraska to the Big Eight championship and the Orange Bowl game. Berringer was 7-0 as a starter, passing for 1,295 yards (14th on Nebraska's all-time, single-season list) and 10 touchdowns, in what amounted to only eight full games. He threw just three passes in the first three games.
When Berringer was slowed by a partially collapsed lung, a problem that occurred in back-to-back games, sophomore walk-on Matt Turman stepped up and directed the Cornhuskers. Although Berringer had been cleared to play, Turman started a 17-6 victory against Kansas State at Manhattan.
Turman had come on to replace Berringer the previous week, directing Nebraska to 23 second-half points in a 32-3 victory against Oklahoma State in the Cornhuskers' Big Eight opener.
The quarterback sequence was somewhat similar in the Orange Bowl victory. Frazier, who had been included on the travel roster for the final regular-season game at Oklahoma, started against Miami. Berringer replaced him and got Nebraska on the scoreboard in the second quarter, with a 19-yard touchdown pass to tight end Mark Gilman. Then Frazier returned to finish it, and earn game MVP honors.
Nebraska trailed the Hurricanes 10-7 at halftime, and fell behind 17-7 less than two minutes into the third quarter. But during the intermission, Osborne had described to the Cornhuskers how the second half would go if they maintained their composure and continued to play as they had. They did.
Afterward, Osborne's halftime speech was made public. It was eerily prophetic.
Even though Nebraska finished its business, by going 13-0, it remained for voters in the Associated Press and USA Today/CNN polls to certify the Cornhuskers as national champions. Penn State also went through the season undefeated and untied, at 12-0. The Nittany Lions argued, but to no avail.
Nebraska began the season ranked No. 4 by the Associated Press, moved to No. 1 after the Kickoff Classic, then inexplicably dropped to No. 2 following a 42-16 victory at Texas Tech. Sophomore safety Mike Minter suffered a season-ending knee injury during the game, televised by ESPN.
In many ways, Minter was to the defense what Frazier was to the offense. His loss was significant, a fact underscored during an unexpectedly close, 42-32 victory against pass-happy Wyoming.
The Cornhuskers dropped to No. 3 in the AP poll after the Kansas State victory, before finally moving to No. 1 following the Colorado game. The Buffaloes came to Lincoln undefeated, untied and ranked No. 2 by the AP and No. 3 by USA Today/CNN. Nebraska was No. 2 according to the coaches. The Cornhuskers remained No. 2 in the USA Today/CNN rankings another week, before ascending to the top spot on the strength of a 45-17 victory over Kansas - and despite a Penn State victory against Indiana.
Nebraska earned the voters' respect with an offense that featured what was regarded as one of the best lines in school history and a still-new 4-3 base defense, which allowed only 55 points in conference play. Led by linebacker Ed Stewart, a consensus All-American, the Cornhuskers ranked second in the nation in scoring defense, fourth in total defense and rushing defense, and 10th in pass defense.
The offensive line included tackle Zach Wiegert, who won the Outland Trophy. Wiegert and guard Brenden Stai both earned All-America recognition - Wiegert was a consensus selection.
Rob Zatechka, the other tackle, was a four-time Academic All-American who graduated with a perfect 4.0 grade-point average in biological sciences. Along with Joel Wilks, the other guard, and center Aaron Graham, the only non-senior among the starters, the group was nicknamed the "Pipeline."
Nebraska led the nation in rushing, with sophomore Lawrence Phillips gaining 1,722 yards, the second-highest single-season total in Cornhusker history. He finished eighth in the Heisman Trophy voting.
Phillips, Graham, Wiegert and Stai all earned first-team all-conference honors on offense.
Stewart, Troy Dumas, Donta Jones, Barron Miles and Tyrone Williams represented the defense on the All-Big Eight first team. Stewart, Wiegert, Zatechka and Terry Connealy were the captains.
A crowd estimated at 14,000 to 15,000 stood in line and braved frigid temperatures for an opportunity to cheer the Cornhuskers at the Bob Devaney Sports Center on their return from Miami. "We didn't just win this for ourselves, we won this for the whole state of Nebraska," Connealy said.
1995 "Back to Back" championships for Nebraska
1995 National Champions
Though such a sweeping assertion cannot be proven, it can be supported. Nebraska's 1995 National Championship team was No. 1 on a list of the top major college teams since 1956. The list was compiled by computer analyst Jeff Sagarin, whose rankings are regularly published in USA Today.
The 1971 Cornhuskers were No. 2 according to Sagarin's power ratings. Both were well ahead of the remaining 23 teams on the list, which also included the 1972 and 1970 Cornhuskers.
Nebraska was never seriously challenged in 1995, as it extended a school-record winning streak to 25 games and repeated as national champion - something that has been accomplished only eight other times since the Associated Press initiated its national college football rankings in 1936.
The closest any opponent could come to the Cornhuskers was 14 points. But even that was deceptive. Washington State trailed Nebraska 28-7 after three quarters, in the fifth game of the season. The Cornhuskers scored 20 points in the second quarter to overcome a 7-0 first quarter deficit.
After that, the outcome was never in serious doubt. The final score was 35-21.
Nebraska, which began the season ranked No. 2 by the Associated Press, didn't move to No. 1 until back-to-back victories against No. 8 Kansas State (49-25) and No. 7 Colorado (44-21). After completing a third consecutive undefeated and untied regular season and winning a fifth consecutive Big Eight championship, including four in a row outright, the Cornhuskers eliminated any doubt about their claim to a second consecutive national title by overwhelming No. 2 Florida 62-24 in the Fiesta Bowl.
Despite the Cornhuskers' success, the 1995 season was one of mixed emotions, resulting from much-publicized off-the-field problems. "It was a terrible year, and it was a great year," Osborne said after the Fiesta Bowl. "It was taxing. On the other hand, it was very gratifying to work with a group of players who had the kind of focus and drive to carry them through." That was the redeeming factor. "There were times I was running on empty. I take my spiritual life very seriously. I relied on my faith more than I ever have. I was grateful for the sustaining strength that was there."
The star-crossed nature of the 1995 team was further underscored in the spring, when Brook Berringer, a quarterback who had just completed his eligibility, died in the crash of a light plane.
Osborne again had to turn to his faith to handle the tragedy. "The Brook I knew, there was nothing he could have done better," said Osborne. "The length (of his life) was not what you would have liked. But the quality couldn't have been better."
Berringer, who had stepped in for an injured Tommie Frazier during the 1994 national championship season, accepted his role without complaint and contributed as a proven back-up in 1995.
Frazier, fully recovered from the blood clot problems that sidelined him much of his junior season, broke the Cornhusker career record for total offense (5,476) and touchdowns produced (79). He earned All-America recognition, finished second to Ohio State's Eddie George in balloting for the Heisman Trophy and received the most valuable player award in the Fiesta Bowl game.
Frazier, whose record in four years as a starter was 33-3, established himself among the best quarterbacks in Cornhusker history. "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," said Osborne, who began as a graduate assistant in 1962.
Under Frazier's direction, Nebraska's offense was even more productive than that of the "Scoring Explosion" team in 1983. The Cornhuskers ranked No. 1 in the nation in both rushing (399.8) and scoring (52.4) and No. 2 in total offense (556.3). The 1983 team was slightly better rushing the ball, averaging a school-record 401.7 yards, but it averaged slightly fewer points (52.0) and total yards (546.7).
Ahman Green, who began fall camp down the list on the depth chart, became the starting I-back and broke the school rushing record for a freshman. He gained 1,086 yards and scored 12 touchdowns.
Green would have broken the school scoring record for a freshman were it not for Kris Brown, the place-kicker. Brown, like Green a true freshman, scored 97 points - a school record for kicking.
In addition to Frazier, center Aaron Graham and outside linebacker Jared Tomich also earned first-team All-America honors. Graham also was a Cornhusker co-captain, along with tight end Mark Gilman, defensive tackle Christian Peter, safety Tony Veland and linebacker Phil Ellis.
Tomich, a junior who originally walked on, was among five Blackshirts who received first-team all-conference recognition. The other defensive players were Peter, linebacker Terrell Farley, rush end Grant Wistrom and cornerback Tyrone Williams. Frazier and Graham were joined on All-Big Eight first team offenses by Green, tackle Eric Anderson and guards Chris Dishman and Aaron Taylor.
Rarely has college football seen such a team. Maybe never.
1997 Osbornes last season produces Huskers 5th Title
1997 National Champions
Miami, A pajama-clad Tom Osborne was packing for home in the early-morning hours of Jan. 3, 1998, when he heard the news.By that time, I was wrung out enough that there wasn't much emotion left,he would say later that morning during a post-Orange Bowl game news conference.
His response to the news was typically low-key.
"Naturally, I was very pleased, very gratified," he said.
The source of his pleasure had been the announcement on ESPN " the television set in his room at the Sheraton Bal Harbour on Miami Beach had been tuned to the network by chance,he said ” that his 25th and final team had been voted the USA Today/ESPN coaches national champion.
The Cornhuskers, No. 2 going into the Orange Bowl game, had squeezed ahead of Michigan in the coaches poll on the strength of their 42-17 victory against No. 3-ranked Tennessee.
The Wolverines retained the top spot in the Associated Press media poll.
"Being a coach, I know a little bit how they think," said Osborne, who was among those with a vote in the USA Today/ESPN poll. They probably looked at the fact we were 13-0, and to be unrewarded in some way would be . . . I don't mean to say an injustice. But it wouldn't be a good thing.
No major college football team has gone 13-0 and been deprived of a national title. On the other hand, Michigan argued, no No. 1 team had ever won its bowl game and been dropped from the top.
The split title seemed a reasonable solution.
That was Cornhusker quarterback Scott Frosts point immediately after the decisive victory against Tennessee. â€œI cant see how any coach outside of the Big Ten or Pac-10 would vote for Michigan because if somebody from North Carolina, Florida State, wherever it might be, Notre Dame, coaches from there, if they were undefeated and won the Alliance bowl game, they would expect to share the national title, the senior from Wood River, Neb., said on the field, in front of CBS television cameras.
"Its been split before. Its OK to split it. It should be split."
Frost was well-versed on national championship history. The title had been split nine times previously since the coaches poll was established in 1950, most recently in 1990 and 1991.
Nebraska's first national championship in 1970 was split with Texas.
Cornhusker defensive tackle Jason Peter was less sharing than Frost.
"If you ask me, I dont think it should be a split title," he said after the Orange Bowl game. "I mean, we proved today that we're the best team in the country, without a doubt.
There probably wouldnt have been much doubt in anyones mind had it not been for Nebraskas dramatic 45-38 overtime victory at Missouri in late October. The Cornhuskers traveled to Columbia with the No. 1 ranking in both polls but returned to Lincoln ranked No. 4.
That same weekend, Michigan went from No. 4 to No. 1 on the strength of a 34-8 victory against No. 2 Penn State, and Florida State, which subsequently lost to Florida, went from No. 3 to No. 2.
Michigan might have slammed the door on Nebraskas national championship aspirations with a more decisive victory against Washington State in the Rose Bowl game, but the door was open at least a crack, Osborne told his team after it watched the Wolverines win 21-16 on New Years Day.
Coaching the Cornhuskers to a third national championship in four seasons was a fitting conclusion to Osbornes Hall of Fame career. The National Football Foundation waived its three-year waiting period for induction, allowing Osborne to be enshrined alongside the games greatest coaches without delay.
Nebraska became only the second major college football program since the Associated Press began ranking teams in 1936 to earn three national titles in four seasons.
Notre Dame won national titles in 1946, 1947 and 1949.
Peter and rush end Grant Wistrom, the Lombardi Award winner and two-time Big 12 Defensive Player-of-the-Year, were the heart and soul of Nebraskas 1997 national champions.
"Those two guys, among some others, ramrodded that football team," Osborne said. "They decided a year ago they were going to come back and get the thing done. Their leadership was invaluable.
Peter and Wistrom earned All-America honors, as did offensive guard Aaron Taylor, the first Cornhusker to be named an All-American at two positions. He played center in 1996.
Taylor was voted the Outland Trophy winner, with Peter being one of two runners-up.
Frost and I-back Ahman Green were among other key players on offense.
Frost became only the 10th player in major college history to rush for 1,000 yards and pass for 1,000 yards in the same season, finishing with 1,095 and 1,237, respectively. His 2,332 yards of total offense were one short of the Nebraska single-season record, set by Jerry Tagge in 1971.
Green rushed for 1,877 yards, which were second in the nation. His yards also ranked second on the Cornhuskers all-time single-season list, behind 1983 Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier's 2,148 yards.
Every Cornhusker, from freshman Matt Davison, whose touchdown catch of a deflected Frost pass on the final play of regulation against Missouri kept the title hopes alive, to scout team players such as senior Doug Seaman, contributed in varying degrees to Nebraskas fifth national title.
The 1997 national championship team was "somewhere in between" the 1994 and 1995 national championship teams, according to Osborne. It was probably a little more talented than 94, certainly not near as controversial as 95. That was nice,he said. So it was just kind of a nice way to go.
"Great leadership on the part of the players, and I didnt have to do much."
He was being overly modest, of course. The record will attest to that.