I had the joy of speaking with several former Canes who played in this game for my book Game of My Life: Miami Hurricanes. There were many big plays and heroes who made them, not the least of whom included game co-MVPs Ken Dorsey and Andre Johnson. Clinton Portis breaking loose for 49 of his 104 yards for a 14-0 lead. We can all remember that ball grazing off the fingertips of Nebraska tight end Tracey Wistrom and landing in the hands of UM defensive back James Lewis, who raced untouched for a 21-0 lead with 12:52 left in the second quarter. And who will ever forget Jeremy Shockey spreading his arms wide in front of a throng of Nebraska fans after trotting into the end zone to extend an embarrassing first-half lead?
However, when I think back on the 2002 Rose Bowl, I can’t get two images out of my head: Jonathan Vilma de-cleating Cornhuskers Ben Zajicek and Dahrran Diedrick. With all the fireworks that Dorsey and the Miami offense set off through the Big East in 2001, it was also an incredible year by a supremely talented defense that held 8 of 11 regular season opponents to 7 points or less. No less than 6 of Miami’s regular season opponents were bowl eligible. Oh, and the Canes led the NCAA in one telling stat: 45 turnovers generated. Holding two top-15 teams to 7 points in a combined 124-7 rout of Washington and Syracuse? Those were just all-time ass-kickings that spoke for themselves.
And the Rose Bowl served as a shining example of what made Miami great from the 80s through 2001: intensity and attitude. Both were on display via Vilma in Pasadena. Vilma’s pure destruction of two ball carriers in the national championship game was a microcosm of the freakish athleticism and swagger the 2001 Miami Hurricanes were chock full of.
And when Vilma tattooed Zajicek, the game was out of reach for Nebraska. For Miami – akin to when they dismantled Notre Dame in 1985 58-7, the score didn’t matter. The hustle never stopped, and the hits just kept on coming.
The six-foot, 220-pound Zajicek took a pitch on a reverse and weaved his way into Miami territory. In perfect form, Vilma slipped off a block and put the shoulder of his white jersey between the "8" and the "5" of Zajicek’s jersey at the Miami 46-yard line. A stung Zajicek wound up on the Miami 47-yard line, and a scrum for the fumbled football piled up at the 48.
ABC color commentator Tim Brant hit the nail on the head with his observation of Vilma’s brutality.
"Those are two of the most incredible tackles you’ll see in football," said Brant. "This is a picture perfect tackle. You dream of hits like that when you’re a defender. When you hit a golf ball perfectly, there’s a little click. When you make a tackle like that perfectly, it feels like a click."
For Miami’s 2001 journey, the "click" of Vilma’s ferocious slobbernocking tackles was a snapshot of a team that was rarely challenged and rose above the rest as college football’s superior team.
And as the final seconds ticked off the clock at the Rose Bowl, to the faint chant from the smattering of orange and green supporters reveling near field level, the Hurricanes had reached the summit of the college football mountain that the flawed BCS system kept them from reaching a season earlier.
The memory of the 2000 BCS snub, and how far some of the fifth-year seniors had come since they sat on a bench in Tallahassee and stared at a scoreboard that read 47-0, was as faint and distant as the orange tinge in the sky as the Hurricanes put the finishing touches on the school’s fifth national championship.
The 2001 Miami Hurricanes are on the short list the best college football teams of all time. However, it’s hard to argue that they weren’t the most talented roster ever. 11 of the 18 players drafted from the Canes’ starting lineup were selected in the first round of the NFL Draft.
Relive the glory with the video below:
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