TEMPE, ARIZ., JAN. 1 -- How fitting that a coach and a team whose entire season has been defined by The Big Gamble, should have to roll the dice for another longshot today.
Twice in the fourth quarter of this wild madcap of a Fiesta Bowl, Coach Bobby Bowden was about ready to elevate both hands in despair as Nebraska appeared ready to clinch victory. But Nebraska's fumble on the 3-yard line got Bowden's heart beating again. And with less than two minutes to play, Florida State was saved by a penalty against Nebraska for having an illegal receiver downfield, which negated a long gain to the 2.
But the play of the game came with three minutes left when Bowden elected to go for the touchdown on fourth and goal from the 15. Danny McManus defied the odds by completing the pass to Ronald Lewis to give the No. 3-ranked Seminoles the 31-28 victory over No. 5 Nebraska.
"I feel luckier than I feel good," said Bowden, who could have been considered down a break ever since Oct. 3 when his team's attempted two-point conversion failed against Miami, virtually eliminating Florida State from the national title chase.
The Seminoles (11-1) probably will have to settle for a No. 2 ranking at best when the last wire service polls are announced Monday, because the Orange Bowl winner is bound to be voted No. 1. But the victory was hardly meaningless for Florida State. "We'll probably finish higher in the rankings than the school ever has," Bowden said, "so we've accomplished a little something."
It couldn't have been accomplished without a tiny mistake by Nebraska that probably cost the game. Steve Taylor, throwing from his 42, completed a screen pass to split end Morgan Gregory that covered 58 yards to the 2.
But the officials ruled that Gregory stepped back off the line of scrimmage, leaving the tight end as an ineligible receiver. Tight end Tom Banderas, who had gone into a pass route on the play, was penalized. The play was called back and the Cornhuskers were pushed back another 10 yards. They couldn't recover.
Banderas had lined up where he was supposed to, on the wide side of the field. But Richard Bell, the Nebraska wingback, said it's a formation the team rarely uses and Gregory shouldn't have stepped back.
"It was the correct call to make," Bell said. "As soon as the official explained what happened, you could understand the penalty."
Bowden said he was standing on the sideline thinking, " 'They've pulled this thing out.' But then I looked out there and saw two flags. I didn't know who the penalty was against. Then, I got the joyous news. Jubilation."
Both teams had their share of jubilation and depression.
Nebraska, which had led by 14-0 only to fall behind, 21-14, had taken a 28-14 lead with 40 seconds left in the third quarter when I-back Tyreese Knox ran four yards for a touchdown.
When Florida State couldn't move the ball early in the fourth quarter, the Cornhuskers (10-2) drove Bowden crazy by holding onto the ball for 5:41 while moving it 71 yards on 13 plays to the 2.
But Knox fumbled with 6:58 to play, and Florida State defensive tackle Eric Hayes recovered. The game had taken the biggest of several turns.
"They looked like they were wrapping it up down there at the 2," Bowden said. "They were going in and they had the game won."
Not after the fumble. And not with the streaky McManus about to get hot again. He was having the best game of his five-year career: 28 for 51, 375 yards and three touchdowns. The last time he had thrown for 300 yards? "Never, nothing over 270 that I can ever remember," he said. Last time he had thrown 51 passes in a game? "Never, not even in passing drills have I thrown that many times in one day."
The series, which began 97 yards from the Cornhuskers goal line, didn't start well. McManus threw what he called, "a worm burner" into the ground for an incompletion on first down.
"He's a streak shooter," Bowden said, "but he streaked at the right time."
McManus hit Terry Anthony for seven yards, Lewis for eight, tailback Dexter Carter for 15, Anthony again for 21 and Carter for 43 to the 2. But again, moving those last two yards was nearly disastrous.
Carter, for trying to kick away from two Nebraska defenders who were twisting his legs after a tackle, was penalized 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct. That took the Seminoles back to the 18.
A third-and-18 play picked up three yards, forcing Bowden to make his second-biggest decision of the season. A field goal would cut the lead to 28-27. The Seminoles could then either try an on-side kick or just try to hold Nebraska, get the ball back and kick another field goal, all within the last three minutes.
"I asked my defensive coaches and they said, 'Maybe' about stopping Nebraska, so it seemed like we'd better do it now or never. Win it now or lose it," Bowden said.
Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne was doing his share of squirming. "I thought we were going to stop them once, especially after that penalty forced them back. You'd think on fourth down that you'd get enough pressure or coverage to prevent a 15-yard touchdown pass."
But Lewis slipped away from cornerback Lorenzo Hicks and was very much open when McManus' pass hit him on the chest.
Even Bowden appeared to feel a little sorry for a Nebraska team that had been ranked No. 1 earlier in the season, only to lose to Oklahoma. "The finish to this football game was amazing," he said, "and probably a little unfair to Nebraska. We were lucky. To go 112 yards for a touchdown (97 plus the 15-yard penalty), you have to be fortunate."
Bowden wasn't looking at the opponent with so much kindness early on, after Keith Jones' touchdown run of three yards and Dana Brinson's punt return of 52 yards had made it 14-0 Nebraska in the first quarter.
"When they scored twice, it made me think, 'This thing is going to be a blowout,' " he said. Florida St. 0 21 3 7 31 Nebraska 14 0 14 0 28 First Quarter
N -- K. Jones 3 run (Drennan kick), 5:29
N -- Brinson 52 punt return (Drennan kick) 13:45 Second Quarter
FSU -- Gainer 10 pass from McManus (Schmidt kick), 4:30
FSU -- D. Williams 4 run (Schmidt kick), 10:12
FSU -- Gainer 25 pass from McManus (Schmidt kick), 14:16 Third Quarter
N -- S. Taylor 2 run (Drennan kick), 3:19
FSU -- FG Schmidt 32, 7:11
N -- Knox 4 run (Drennan kick), 14:20 Fourth Quarter
FSU -- Lewis 15 pass from McManus (Schmidt kick), 11:53
A -- 72,112
Florida St. Nebraska First downs 26 20 Rushes-yards 29-82 54-242 Passing yards 375 142 Return yards 15 192 Passing 28-51-1 7-14-1 Punts-average 4-30 4-36 Fumbles-lost 2-1 4-2 Penalties-yards 2-20 9-59 Tim
RUSHING -- Florida St.: S. Smith 9-28, McManus 5-26, Bennett 7-16, D. Williams 3-5, D. Carter 4-4, Butts 1-
PASSING -- Florida St.: McManus 28-51-1, 375 yards. Nebraska: S. Taylor 7-14-1, 142.
RECEIVING -- Florida St.: Gainer 5-89, P. Carter 5-54, D. Carter 4-89, R. Lewis 4-59, Bennett 4-47, Anthony