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Tom Osborne confessed this week that he coached three games in his legendary 25-year head football coaching career where he felt genuinely bad about the outcome and not surprisingly, one was Nebraska's controversial 27-24 loss at eventual 1982 national champion Penn State.
In an interview in his office, Nebraska's athletic director described all three losses as games that had national championship implications, and all three indeed cost the Huskers a national title: 1) the 27-24 regular-season loss at Penn State in 1982; 2) a 31-30 Orange Bowl loss to Miami a year later when Osborne refused to back into a national championship by kicking an extra point that would have allowed Nebraska to remain the nation's only unbeaten team; and 3) an 18-16 Orange Bowl loss to national champion Florida State when the Huskers missed a last-second field goal that would have given them the 1993 national title.
"In the '82 game at Penn State, I remember a couple of plays that our fans still remember and talk about," Osborne said. "I remember us scoring to go ahead 24-20. We kicked off and David Ridder ran down the field to cover. For some reason, a Penn State guy kept trying to block him even after the play was over, and David threw him off him and was called for a personal foul. So instead of Penn State starting their winning drive on their own 25, they got to start on the 40."
Of course Osborne remembers the third-down pass that Penn State tight end Mike McCloskey caught two yards out-of-bounds, and without the benefit of instant replay, the catch was ruled complete. Sixteen years later, when he introduced 1982 Nebraska quarterback Turner Gill at an athletic banquet in Boys Town, McCloskey admitted he was clearly out of bounds when he caught that crucial pass.
But that call wasn't one that bothered Osborne, even though he laughingly promised Thursday in a KLIN radio interview that he would go down on the field at Beaver Stadium Saturday and make sure Penn State did not reline out-of-bounds to keep that sacred ground in their precious time machine.
JoePa Proved Prophetic in Voter Responses
Never one to gripe about anything, Osborne did acknowledge in our interview when he thought Nebraska lost its chance to win the national championship in 1982. But first, a history lesson is in order to fully measure the impact of Joe Paterno's influence on national voters, both with the media and among his fellow coaches.
Penn State had a bye week after beating Nebraska and two weeks later lost at Alabama, 42-21. The Nittany Lions got absolutely smoked by an absolutely average Crimson Tide team. Fortunately, the nation's voters moved Nebraska ahead of Penn State in the national ratings, and justice was served until the weekend of Nov. 13 when the Nittany Lions hosted Notre Dame while Nebraska played at Iowa State.
Before the weekend, Paterno was at his public relations best, saying if Penn State should somehow beat Notre Dame, the Nittany Lions would deserve the nation's No. 1 ranking.
Osborne points out that the Alabama team that beat Penn State by three touchdowns was not very good, and quite frankly, neither was Notre Dame, yet when the Nittany Lions beat the Irish, 24-14, in State College, and Nebraska thumped Iowa State, 48-10, in Ames, Nebraska switched positions with Penn State in both major polls. Writers and coaches alike bought into Paterno's logic, and Nebraska never saw daylight again despite a 12-1 season that seemed worthy of a national championship.
Here's the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth after Googling facts I needed to see and evaluate. Notre Dame lost four of its last seven games in 1982 and was, in essence, a non-national factor. The 8-4 Alabama team that rolled Penn State didn't even finish among the nation's top 25 that season after beating Illinois, 21-15, in the Liberty Bowl.
No Instant Replay, No BCS Statistical Logic
So what we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is a high-profile coach who lobbied voters and got away with it. Yes, Husker defensive end Tony Felici bemoaned the lack of instant replay 29 years ago, but what about the lack of BCS computers? Think they would have analyzed inconsistent results and power ratings better than members of the media and coaches?
Amidst the evidence we built for Nebraska, I must add an important footnote. Second-ranked Penn State did beat once-beaten and top-ranked Georgia and Herschel Walker, 27-23, in the Sugar Bowl that season while Nebraska edged a less than stellar LSU, 21-20, in the Orange Bowl.
Still, when you add up all the evidence and compare seasons, Nebraska had as good a case for the national championship as anyone in 1982.
"I know most everyone talks about losing to Miami (31-30) and missing the national championship the next season," Osborne said. "But when you really look at that '82 team and that '83 team (the highest scoring team in college football history), our '82 team was really a lot more balanced than our '83 team. We were much better on defense in '82, and that '82 team was great on offense, too. We had Roger Craig (a two-time Super Bowl hero) and (Heisman winner) Mike Rozier and Turner Gill and Irving Fryar. I thought we were very deserving of a national championship."
It took three decades for Osborne to align himself with so many in Nebraska's national fan base, and the good news is, he can look back at history and laugh instead of complain.
Will Check if Field is Still Lined the Same
Please take the time to listen to a Thursday interview with Lincoln's KLIN. Osborne responds to a variety of questions, and late in the interview, he accepts a challenge and laughingly promises to go down on the field at Beaver Stadium Saturday and make sure Penn State did not reline the chalk to keep sacred ground "legal" on its own sideline in a time machine.
Oh how the years go by. Was it really 29 years ago when we watched that 12-1 team finish not only behind Penn State, but, large gulp here, behind an 11-0-1 SMU team as well?
Justice, however, was served less than nine months later when Nebraska played Penn State in the first-ever Kickoff Classic in East Rutherford, N.J. Final score: Nebraska 44, Penn State 6. Many saw redemption in that score, and even though history could not correct itself, such domination certainly reminded many how important it is to look at every result all season long.
P.S. In his 5-game head-to-head series with college football's all-time winningest coach, Osborne won, 42-17, in 1979 in Lincoln; won, 21-7, in 1980 in State College; lost 30-24, in 1981 in Lincoln; lost 27-24, in 1982 in State College; and won 44-6 in 1983 in East Rutherford. In other words, he won 3 and lost 2, one of which deserves an asterisk to explain.
If you love comparative analysis between your favorite Hall-of-Fame coach alongside Bob Devaney, consider Osborne's all-time record against LSU, which sits atop the college football world in both major polls after outkicking Alabama, 9-6, last Saturday night in Tuscaloosa. Tom Osborne-coached teams met LSU teams five times in his 25 years as head coach, and Nebraska won four of the five and tied one. Osborne seemed mildly surprised when we told him that, and his reaction confirms one thing: There must not have been any controversy in any of those five decisions.
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