The college football off-season is notorious for its lack of brevity. The longest break of any major sport, when May rolls along and we're still only half way home. As such, we will begin this multi-part series on great past Miami Hurricane teams.
We all know of the illustrious history of the 5 national title winning teams. What many outside the super fandom do not know is how many times Miami was in the title game on the losing side. This fact is what separates Miami from any other program of the last 30 years. Today’s focus: the 2002 Fiesta Bowl losing edition.
While the 2001 team gets all the national recognition, and more than deservedly so, I will always prefer the 2002 edition. I always enjoy the nay-sayers being silenced, and this entire season was full of them. The schedule on paper looked extremely daunting. Florida and Tennessee on the road, to go along with a presumably more experienced Chris Rix and his Florida State squad (0-5 all time career what what!!). Here is a rather positive preview picking Miami to lose one game but still make the Fiesta Bowl and play for the title.
Losing so many first round NFL draft picks seemed too difficult a task to overcome to repeat. However, lest our immediate history becomes our instant past, and not unlike USC's run after, Miami famously reloaded. Kellen Winslow II, Sean Taylor, Willis McGahee, Vernon Carey, Antrel Rolle…all were backups and/or special teams stars in 2001. Little did any of us know these guys would arguably be better than their previous versions.
Game 1: @ Miami 63, Florida A&M 17
The (pre)season opener against Florida A&M went as intended; a warm-up. Up 42-0 at halftime, FAMU was sacked 7 times. Surprisingly, at least in hindsight, Jason Geathers had 199 yards rushing. I’m sure after this week we all thought we had our new Clinton Portis; a week later this would still be the case.
Game 2: Miami 41, @ Florida 16
The real opener to the season. If I remember correctly Miami might have been a mental underdog, if not an actual Vegas dog. Florida was coming off a 10-2 Orange Bowl thumping of media darling Illinois the year prior, but the Ole Ball Coach decided he had enough of the unrealistic expectations and peaced out. I remember watching this game and being worried relatively late when Miami was holding an 11 point lead. Rex Grossman had the Gators inside UM’s 10 yard line. Maurice Sikes, 99 yards, and six points later, the score was 34-16, and this game was effectively over. Willis broke out on the national stage, rushing for over 200 yards, and I told anyone how I was in English 101 with McGahee. What a nerd.
Game 3: Miami 44, @ Temple 21
Nothing shocking here, other than Miami being up only 10 at halftime. Woke up in the 2nd half, cruised to their expected win.
Game 4: @ Miami 38, Boston College 6
The curse of Flutie. Miami beat BC every time they played after the infamous 1984 game, all the way until the final days of Coker and his motivation less squads ruined another great streak. I can’t find an article to this one, no doubt because the year prior was where the real fireworks occurred. This year was business as usual, retribution of sorts for causing high stress levels for Canes fans nation wide in 2001.
Game 5: @ Miami 48, Connecticut 14
Another tune up to the FSU tilt a week later, the Huskies proved no match for the brooding juggernaut of Miami. Connecticut was actually still an independent this season, leading up to their joining the Big East. Again, with no success locating any archives, we can treat this UConn team like a Northeast Directional school as they had just emerged from D1AA, and not waste any more time.
Game 6: @ Miami 28, Florida State 27
Probably the most exciting Miami game I’ve ever watched on tv. FSU had lost to a mediocre Louisville squad two weeks prior, but was 5-1 coming in and ranked in the mid teens. Bobby Bowden said if his Seminoles could defeat the #1 Canes it would drive them right up the polls and propel them to a great year, not unlike similar scenarios in the independent 80s days. Little did Grandpa Bowden realize, but in the land of the conference play, especially the ACC prior to their grand larceny in 2003, you have to win all your games first and argue later. Nevertheless, Miami would use some of their typical late game heroics and pull this one out of their Ibis asses. We all know about the Wide Left, and indeed it was fantastic. From about midway through the 3rd quarter, I accepted defeat and started envisioning all scenarios where Miami could still make it to Tempe. Then Willis and Geathers happened. Never again would I doubt a Miami team late in a game to make a comeback, and to me is the best part of being a Canes fan. Compare that to growing up a Michigan fan, where you could pop a diamond out of the ass of anyone who rooted for Michigan in the Lloyd Carr years. The 2004 FSU tilt would prove my faith in this theory, as I truly enjoyed that game envisioning a victory the entire time. Anyways, Wide Left, game over, Miami moves on.
Game 7: Miami 40, @ West Virginia 23
After a week off to revel in the FSU comeback, and in theory to fix their run defense, WVU didn’t break stride and ran all over the Hurricanes. 363 rushing yards later, the Mountaineers proved Miami had some serious problems with their front 7, but still couldn’t produce a victory. Miami had a couple of their infamous one minute drives to open the game up early and late, sandwiched by a WVU mini comeback. In the end, Rich Rod’s offense inability to pass proved their downfall.
Game 8: Miami 42, @ Rutgers 17
This was the game when Miami came out flat on all facets, and I believe it was tied at halftime. They were behind in the 4th quarter. And this was old school Rutgers! As in 1-7 coming in, and played one competitive game each year against Temple. This was astounding it was close for that long. As was the custom, Miami realized it was light years ahead of Schiano’s group, and blew them out running in the 2nd stanza. But again, a trend was being established. Miami playing down to competition, and not being as hungry for that title Ed Reed wouldn’t let them forget about the year prior.
Game 9: Miami 26, @ Tennessee 3
After falling to #2 in the polls due to their disgusting play against Rutgers, Tennessee started the game off with a field goal, and decided that was enough for them. Game over. Volunteer QBs were sacked 7 times, and managed only 77 passing yards in total. Willis ran roughshod again on the national SEC stage, breaking off 145 yards and a touchdown. Tennessee wasn’t all that great coming in, but this win in Knoxville combined with the early season victory in the Swamp quieted all the critics from the previous follies with RU and WVU. I’d love to get a schedule like this today. An away game against an SEC opponent mid to late in the year is great entertainment. I remember the best part of this game was President Shalala coming into the booth for a cameo. When asked where she was making her next road trip with the Canes, she made no attempt at political correctness, didn’t play coy, showed no hesitation, and said flatly "The Fiesta Bowl." Great television.
Game 10: @ Miami 28, Pittsburgh 21
Another Thursday night showcase game, which nearly always benefits the underdog at home and away, Miami snuck out a victory to stay undefeated. After this victory they finally overtook Ohio State for the top spot in the BCS standings, and with OSU’s season ending (ridiculously) on that third weekend of November, Miami knew they could not lose even once and make it up in the polls.
Game 11: Miami 49, @ Syracuse 7
Always great to watch a game played in the Carrier Dome. Raucous crowd (at least back when they could still score points), fast field, nice tradition of the program. Of course, this game was really just a continuation of the year before, a 59-0 embarrassment of an eventual 10-win team at the Orange Bowl. Where Bryant McKinnie tossed Dwight Freeney’s salad and fed it back to him for a late lunch. This was the beginning of the end for the Syracuse program, still in the hole created during these lean years.
Game 12: @ Miami 56, Virginia Tech 45
Very odd to have a non conference title game season finish in December. Many fans forget but in 2001, after getting pure revenge on Washington for the lone 2000 loss, with Miami players brandishing roses in their teeth on the sidelines, Virginia Tech was a mere two point conversion away from sending the game into overtime and possibly ruining Miami’s greatest team and season. Ahhh, revisionist history. The final score of this one looked somewhat close, but in actuality Miami was comfortably ahead for the duration. Dorsey had another highly efficient game with 60% completion rate and 300 yards passing, and McGahee rushed over 200 yards, with a crazy total of six (6!!) touchdowns. Miami fans across the nation were booking flights and hotels to Tempe. OK, at least 100 of them.
"Michael, this blown PI call will make us bigger than US Steel."
Game 13: Fiesta Bowl: Ohio State 31, Miami 24
I despise Ohio State. Lets get that out of the way. I grew up a Michigan fan, and these were the John Cooper years. To Wolverine fans, 2-10-1 is the sound of a free hooker who has a lifetime UAW membership. Knowing this, 2002 was the worst year of my college football fandom. Nothing will ever top it. Michigan nearly beating an undefeated Ohio State and their shiny new coach on the road, followed by Miami losing to the white trash scripted Ohio two months later? Not a nice two months for me.
I still remember verbatim the events as I was watching the game with my Big Ten friends. All were either Michigan or Michigan State fans, and all practicing the ridiculous art of rooting pro-conference over actual team hatred. Once "The Incident" happened, all eyes turned to me. What would the Miami fan say? How would he react? Everyone in the house knew the absurdity of the call. I calmly replied, "That call didn’t make them lose (yes it did). The game isn’t over (it should be). It’s overtime (this is terrible). Miami has to win it again (napalm Columbus!!)." And that was that.
Nearly a decade later, I can watch this game on ESPN Classic and appreciate the overall beauty of the Miami program. Seeing the official breakout party of Sean Taylor, after no one thought anyone could replace #20, we knew the talent was back. Battling each time Ohio State’s fantastic game plan would put them ahead, and the kick by Todd Sievers to send it into OT?! How does no one remember this moment?? Everyone figured it was an after thought he would make it, but it was a 40 yard kick on the final play! Or the 4th down conversion Derrik Crudup made coming in off the sideline cold when Dorsey was knocked out for one play? Ugh, I am starting to get angry again researching this game. Can’t help it.
Not unlike the 1986 juggernaut, this 2002 team committed costly turnovers, five in total, that would prove its downfall. Still, a fantastic season. Should Miami have won, this team would be on par with Godfather Part 2 status to the Godfather status of the 2001 team. In 2004 they set the first round NFL draft day record, all from players who starred on this 2002 squad. However, just like you will never win the argument the sequel starring a tour de force Pacino and an oscar winning De Niro is better than the original, all because Brando isn’t in it, it's the same with my favorite Canes team ever.
No title? No respect. We’ll always have Gainesville.