The 2005 Paradise Bowl was the culmination of the 2004-05 NCAA Division-I college football season, the staging ground for that season's national championship, as agreed upon by the presidents and athletic directors in 1999. This would mark the first time since 1996 that the Paradise Bowl hosted a national title game.
The game pitted the No. 1 Huron Highlanders against the No. 2 Nebraska Cornhuskers, and resulted in a dramatic and now-legendary 20-19 Huron win. The victory handed Huron their 11th national championship and second under relatively young head coach Brett Estevez.
The game was the first time that the NCAA had mandated that the Nos. 1 and 2 teams switch between being designated home or away every year - previously, it had been up to the discretion of the bowls. As a result, every game at the conclusion of an even-numbered year required the No. 1 to be the road team, and the conclusion of every odd-numbered year required the No. 1 program to be the home team.
2004 College Football Season
Huron HighlandersHuron entered the season ranked No. 1 almost unanimously, returning a bevy of starters from their 2003 squad which lost the national title game to Washington, including the Johnson brothers; senior Trent, the returning senior and third-year starter at tailback as well as the reigning Bosch champion, and his younger brother Toby at wide receiver, who had been the 2003 Lakes Conference Freshman of the Year. They also returned all five starting offensive linemen, star tight end Julius Mainey, nine defensive starters from the previous year as well as eight of the backups to the returning starters, and the top-rated kicker in the country, Bo Lake. However, they were breaking in a new quarterback in Matt Simms, a redshirt junior who had sat behind the previous year's starter Keith Stewart for three years.
Huron blasted every opponent throughout the season, cementing their status as No. 1, although Trent Johnson took a backseat in the offense in favor of the passing game, which emerged with Simms as the budding star. Huron's first statement win came in third week when they defeated Massachusetts on the road and then returned home to defeat No. 5 Notre Dame. The back-to-back wins over two highly regarded programs and head coaches were considered major for head coach Brett Estevez, who was often criticized by the Huron media for being unable to win "big" games, despite already having a national championship and two conference titles. Huron defeated then-No. 3 Missouri in November top further cement their status as the elite and then defeated arch-nemesis Michigan prior to the Lakes Conference Game, which they won 34-20 over Notre Dame for a second straight defeat of the Irish in the conference title match, and advanced unbeaten to the national title game.
Nebraska CornhuskersUnder head coach Bill Kaplan, who had been coaching at Nebraska since 1973 and been the head coach since 1988, the Nebraska Cornhuskers had been up-and-down for his decade and a half at the helm. They entered 2004, however, as the No. 2 team in the country largely thanks to their Central Conference championship the previous year and defeat of Texas in the Texas Bowl. Many had believed that Nebraska, led by quarterback Cade Collins, had been the best team in 2003 and that they were superior to Huron, which was eventually picked to face Washington.
2004 was cited as "one of the most predictable years in college football history," as all seaso long, Nebraska barrelled its way through college football at No. 2, ending the season as one of three undefeated teams in the country, the final being No. 5 Miami of the Caribbean League. They defeated archrival and then-No. 4 Sequoyah 42-14 in Norman, the first time in a decade the Huskers had won a road game in the series. Nebraska quarterback Cade Collins finished second in Bosch voting behind winner Malcom Ross of San Diego and NU defensive lineman Troy Goldston won the Apney Award for the best defensive player in the country alongside a bevy of other defensive and lineman awards. Bill Kaplan was named Coach of the Year.
The game was to be broadcast on ABC/ESPN and was instantly cited as an excellent matchup between two storied programs that had seen a recent resurgence. It marked the first time that a team had played in consecutive national title games since Maryland accomplished that feat in 1992 and 1993.
The game was also much-hyped due to its billing as "the true matchup," unlike previous years that had seen one of several one-loss teams or one of several undefeated teams being admitted to the game over others in the same position, something that had in fact happened to Nebraska the previous season in favor of Huron. The Simms-Collins head-to-head was seen as a potential offensive spectacle to behold.
A large spectacle was made of the centennial of the NCAA taking control of the national championship and this was marked by a pre-game parade of living championship coaches and the living MVPs of championship games, as well as every living Bosch winner. The ceremonial coin toss was performed by Chuck Noll, Harrison Ford and former Huron and Nebraska coaches Randy Edison and Bob Dole.
The game was a defensive clinic, featuring a number of forced turnovers and takeaways by two terrific defenses against two pedestrian offenses. After five consecutive possessions ending with punts, the Highlanders finally broke a rare big play against Nebraska when Matt Simms found Toby Johnson for a 45-yard gain, which was shortly followed by Simms scrambling on a collapsed protection and running into the endzone.
The Cornhuskers were unable to generate any offensive consistency more thanks to their own miscues than any real effort by Huron, but began looking sharp on the final drive of the second quarter, in they converted three third downs and Cade Collins threw seven consecutive pass completions on a 14-play drive that ended with the second Husker field goal of the night, make the score going into halftime 7-3.
Nebraska took the ball downfield on a quick drive to start the third quarter, but on three attempts from the one-yard line, running back Morris Shephard failed to punch the ball in and the Huskers settled for another field goal. Huron responded on the next drive with a lengthy, 18-play drive from their own six that ended with their own field goal, making the score 10-6. Simms threw an enormously costly interception on the next Huron drive that was returned 30 yards and three plays later, Collins dodged Huron defensive end Connor Holt to score on a three-yard run, making the score 13-10.
Simms made amends for his three-interception evening by leading the Highlanders on a long scoring drive to respond to Nebraska, making the score 17-13 with eight minutes to play. The Huskers failed to convert on fourth and inches and on the next drive, the Highlanders kicked a 54-yard field goal to make the score 20-13 and put Nebraska in an unenviable position.
Nevertheless, the Cornhuskers embarked on yet another long drive and managed to convert on fourth and two with just over a minute left. With five seconds on the clock and no remaining timeouts, Nebraska tailback Taylor Mead breaks free of a would-be tackle from Corey Potter and rumbles in from six yards out to score a touchdown with half a second remaining. Nebraska kicker Evan Woode lined up for the extra point attempt to send the game to overtime, but as the ball came up, Huron defenseman Connor Holt got a band on the ball, sending it skewed to the side, and Potter and linebacker Ryan Altman managed to jump on the ball as it hit the ground and held it up for all to see. The Huron sideline erupted as the Highlanders clinched their 11th national championship, second in five years and fourth since 1991.
The game was cited as an instant classic by most major news outlets. In particular, it was hailed by former Huron head coach Randy Edison as "the best game in the history of Huron football."
The Patrick O'Brien National Championship Trophy was presented in tandem by then-Texas head coach Dick Vermeil and former Maryland receiver, Bosch winner and national title game MVP Damian Ward to Brett Estevez and the University of Huron's President, George Ball. Defensive lineman Connor Holt was almost unanimously voted the national title game MVP thanks to his heroic block on the last play of the game