Seldom has a game turned so completely on one play.
The underdog Florida Gators were camped on the Nebraska 1, about to put the Cornhuskers away.
With a 10-0 lead in the third quarter, and the Husker offense sputtering against the aggressive, swarming Gator defense, a Florida touchdown at that point would have been monumental – a touchdown, it should be added, that probably should have been counted two plays before.
On third-and-four from the Nebraska 18, tailback Tony Green took a pitchout from Don Gaffney and bolted for the end zone. Knocked off balance, Green went the final five yards sideways while trying to stay inbounds. He reached the end zone, but the officials ruled he stepped out at the 5. Films later showed he had not.
Gaining just four yards of the necessary five on the next three plays, Gator coach Doug Dickey waved off the field goal team and had his team go for it. Gaffney pitched to James Richards – who slipped, then was dropped by defensive back Jim Burrow (a former walk-on at Ole Miss, where he was told he was too small).
Dickey didn’t really feel the situation was that much of a gamble. “I thought maybe (even) if we left the ball there (at the 1),” the coach said, “we’re going to get it back and kick the field goal anyway.”
Huskers’ coach Tom Osborne, however, made a critical change in strategy: he benched quarterback David Humm, normally feared passer but who the Gators harnessed (at that juncture, Humm had two completions in 14 attempts – and four interceptions) and sent in reserve Terry Luck with orders to junk the passing game and use the runners.
Nebraska began worming its way out of the shadows of the goal posts as Don Westbrook, Monte Anthony, and Tony David consistently gained ground – short gains, maybe, but steady yardage. By the end of the third period, the Huskers were planted on the Gator 12. Anthony bounced into the end zone two minutes later to cut the lead to 10-7.
The 18-play, 99-yard drive consumed eight minutes and 50 seconds of playing time.
There was more the next time Nebraska got the ball. Luck’s unit came to a fourth-and-two at the 49. Osborne signaled “Go for it” and Anthony gained three yards. The drive eventually slowed, but Mike Coyle’s line-drive field goal of 37-yards tied the score with 7:12 to play.
The dynamics of the game had completely changed. Florida again could not move and the Huskers got the ball at their 25 with four minutes to go. Davis put Nebraska in position for the victory when he broke off a 40-yard gain to the Gators 31. The last minutes wouldn’t have been an issue except that defensive back Alvin Cowan brought Davis down when no one else could.
That tackle could have salvaged at least a tie for the Gators. But with 2:22 left, Coyle came back for Nebraska, facing a fourth-and-one at the Florida 22. It was close, but his 39-yard field goal was true. “I didn’t think that last one was good,” he said, “but it had that famous Coyle hook on it.”
Nebraska had somehow pulled itself not only from defeat but also from humiliation.
The Florida locker room was steamy and somber afterward. Dickey spent a lot of time talking individually with his warriors. Preston Kendrick, who was absolutely superb on the field with two interceptions, eight solo tackles and four assists, couldn’t look up.
In another corner, defensive back Randy Talbot stopped taking his jersey off, looked around, then expressed what everyone else seemed to be thinking: “I’ll tell you what, I’d like to play them again.”
Recap excerpted from the book “Sugar Bowl Classic: A History” by Marty Mulé, who covered the game and the organization for decades for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
Tulane Stadium Att: 68,890
Nebraska 0 0 0 13 – 13
Florida 7 3 0 0 – 10
Fla: Green 21-yard run (Posey kick)
Fla: Posey 40-yard field goal
Neb: Anthony 2-yard run (Coyle kick)
Neb: Coyle 37-yard field goal
Neb: Coyle 39-yard field goal
Neb.: Davis 17-126; Anthony 15-64, 1 TD
UF: Dubose 17-84; Green 14-73, 1 TD