(For those looking for highlights of the game, advance to the 14:15 of the video that's found here).
For the first time in a very long time, Miami entered a season off a bowl victory and with hope and excitement surrounding the program. Indeed, the 1981 Hurricanes had ended the 1980 season with a 20-10 Peach Bowl victory over Virginia Tech, something not seen in over a dozen years.
Now, over 74,000 fans flooded the Orange Bowl on September 5, 1981, waiting to see Howard Schnellenberger's year-three version of the Hurricanes in his five year plan to win the national championship. And the opponent to start the 1981 season would be the same one the Canes ended their 1980 season with - the #17 Florida Gators.
Leading 28-7 at Florida Field, and with a bowl bid all but locked up, the UF student section began to pelt players, coaches, and cheerleaders with frozen oranges. Schnellenberger was so incensed that when his team got the ball back, he booted through a meaningless field goal in the waning moments to inch the final margin out to 31-7.
There was no love lost between the schools in 1981, and with the change in scheduling between the schools, the intrastate tilt would take place in September instead of November. This time it would be Florida who would deliver the early blows. After jumping to an early 3-0 lead, a Jim Kelly interception set up the Gators at the seven-yard line, leading to a James Jones touchdown run.
In fact, the Hurricanes would turn the football over an eye-popping 5 times in the first half. Gator QB Wayne Peace found Spencer Jackson near the sideline. Jackson weaved his way through the Miami defense for a 38-yard touchdown and a 14-3 halftime lead.
Jim Kelly led the Canes on an 11-play, 82-yard drive to draw within 14-11. But, later in the game, Jim Kelly attempted to make a block on a Gator defender in the third quarter, and went down awkwardly with a calf injury.
On came little used QB Mark Richt, and he would lead one of the most improbable comebacks in Orange Bowl history.
Deep into the fourth quarter, Richt found WR Rocky Belk on a square-in for a 55-yard TD, and suddenly it was 20-18 UF. Confidence began to grow among the nervous orange-and-green clad supporters.
After getting the ball back, Richt found TE Glenn Dennison on a crossing pattern that helped moved the Canes to the edge of field goal range. After begging his coach for a chance, PK Danny Miller blasted a 55-yard kick that bounced off the left upright and through with seconds remaining, setting off pandemonium inside the Orange Bowl. Florida's final second desperation kick came up short, and Miami, led by Mark Richt, had done the improbable.
The win was the Canes' fourth in a row over the Gators. The 1981 Canes finished 9-2, losing at ranked Texas and Mississippi State teams by a combined 11 points. On Halloween night, Miami would shock #1 Penn State in the Orange Bowl 17-14. However, a two-year probation sentence, including one-year bowl ban, ended the season without postseason play.