Normally, you wouldn’t select a player who Nebraska only faced a single time and that completed more than two-thirds of his passes as Huskerkill, but then Peyton Manning is no ordinary player and the 1998 Orange Bowl was no ordinary game.
Manning might well have been the top overall pick in the 1997 NFL draft but chose instead to return for his senior year. While his stated goal was “to win championships” many believed his desire to win the Heisman trophy and to beat Florida were what really drove him to return. While Manning did lead Tennessee to an SEC championship he lost to Florida (adding to the label of “can’t win the big one” that followed Manning into pro football) and was runner-up for the Heisman behind Michigan’s Charles Woodson.
The Orange Bowl could have offered a shot of redemption for Peyton. If Michigan lost in the Rose Bowl, the Volunteers could have won a national championship by beating Nebraska. But the Wolverines narrow victory over Ryan Leaf’s Washington State team ended any championship hopes for Tennessee before they would even take the field against the Cornhuskers. Still, a victory over a Nebraska team that had gone 59-3 over the last five seasons would still have earned Manning some credit for being capable of winning a big game.
Of course, it wasn’t in the cards for Manning. Peyton had the Volunteers driving early but Ralph Brown forced a Jamal Lewis fumble at the NU 20 which Mike Rucker recovered at the Husker 22. Scott Frost then passed for 63 of the 78 yards the Huskers would need to go up 7-0. On the last play of the first quarter, a Manning pass bounced off wide receiver Jeremaine Copeland’s hands and into the arms of Nebraska’s Eric Warfield. The Huskers were forced to punt but Tennessee’s Teri Noel fumbled the return settting up NU’s second touchdown. Manning marched the Volunteers into field goal range, making it 14-3 at the half.
In the second half, the Huskers limited Manning to only 38 passing yards and he went the whole game without completing a single pass of 20 yards or more. The Husker offense exploded for 340 rushing yards and 28 points in the third and fourth quarters. Peyton’s final stat line was 21-31 for 134 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He was only sacked once for nine yards, but many of his passes were checkdowns because he was under constant pressure all night.
Manning exited the field with the same hangdog expression we’ve come to recognize from him in defeat and the Huskers leading 42-10. It didn’t exactly vindicate his decision to return for his senior campaign. Manning ultimately redeemed himself in the eyes of critics by winning the Super Bowl, but on that night in Miami you saw a young man beaten down by the mighty Huskers.