In what had been a day of chaos on Championship Saturday on December 5, 1998, the Hurricanes thrust themselves back into the limelight of national relevance while knocking out a contender at the same time.
UCLA entered the Orange Bowl, knowing that Kansas State had lost in double overtime, and all it needed to do was conquer a Miami program that had still not recovered fully from probation, although it was showing signs of promise. One win, and the Bruins were on their way to Tempe to play for the national championship.
And QB Cade McNown played like a man hungry for a title. For the day, he would throw for 513 yards as UCLA’s offense rolled up an astonishing 670 yards of total offense against the Hurricane defense.
Even more astonishing? They allowed Miami to roll up 19 yards more than that!
While its offense had done its job all day, the Bruins faced late desperation as a result of its turnstile defense, with only 4 seconds left on the clock. The ball was sitting at the Miami 30-yard line as McNown took the snap. The clock between “Miami 49” and “UCLA 45” ticked down to 0:00 as McNown stepped up and released the ball towards the end zone. And as the ball flew well over the outstretched arms of UCLA WR Danny Farmer (who already had pulled in a touchdown on the day) and harmlessly to the turf behind the end zone, Hurricane players, assistant coaches, fans, students, and a jubilant Butch Davis flooded the Orange Bowl field in celebration of one of Miami’s biggest upset victories in years that sent shockwaves through the college football universe. It was also a celebration of the best performance by arguably Miami’s greatest offensive player in its history: Edgerrin James.
James carried 39 times (tying the school record) for 299 yards (setting the record). At one point in the fourth quarter, he had broken the 300-yard mark until he was stopped in the backfield. But that was more of an exception to the rule for the day. And rule is a good word to describe what James did to the helpless UCLA defense. James found the end zone three times - from 45 yards in the first quarter, 10 yards in the second, and from 1 yard out with seconds left in the game for the winning margin. In between, James ran through, around, and past Bruin defenders, with James even noting the Bruins lack of physicality after the game.
With one of the NFL’s best running backs of the 2000s going against a defense lacking in reciprocal talent, the advantage was with Miami’s running game....but the sheer awesomeness of James’s natural abilities was incredible to watch.
And the future NFL star surpassed another Miami record held by a former NFL great, shattering Ottis Anderson’s single-season rushing record with 1416 yards.
Miami would need every yard and point their superstar running back could carry them to, as a leaky defense left the Hurricanes in comeback mode for much of the game.
Despite leading 21-17 at the half, UCLA stormed ahead 38-21 after three third-quarter touchdowns and seemed well on their way to victory after struggling to contain Miami’s running game in the first half. The big play in the passing game appeared to be Miami’s undoing defensively. McNown fired downfield at will to his targets, with Brad Melsby and Brian Poli-Dixon pulling in scores of 61 and 59 yards, respectively.
But the Canes traded punches, with Scott Covington connecting with a streaking Santana Moss for a 71-yard touchdown that re-energized the Miami crowd and drew the Canes within 3 at 38-35. UCLA answered with a McNown run to push the margin to 10 before Covington rolled out and found TE Mondriel Fulcher for a catch-and-run 29-yard touchdown to pull back within 3 with 6 minutes and change remaining.
And, with UCLA driving again, it seemed Miami’s defense had no answer for the Bruin offensive machine moving quickly back down the field.
Then, with 3:24 remaining, Miami caught a break. Or made its own break, depending on who you ask.
Melsby hauled in a McNown pass and turned upfield making it to the Miami 25-yard line. As he would do for the next 15-plus years in college and in the NFL, safety Ed Reed made a game-changing play, delivering a hard hit on Melsby that separated him from the ball. Delvin Brown recovered the fumble, and after a brief huddle from the officials, Miami had the ball with a chance to win it. Replays were indecisive as to whether the ball squirted free just before Melsby’s knee touched the ground.
Najeh Davenport and James willed Miami down to the 1-yard line, where James punched it in with 50 seconds left to culminate an unforgettable day in college football history and in Miami lore.
Miami had ended yet another 20+ game winning streak, this time UCLA’s 20-game run. They had bounced back from a pride-snatching 66-13 pounding at Syracuse the week before and proven they could play with the nation’s best. And they had showed that, despite years of mediocre results, the U still had talent and was creeping back towards respectability. Two seasons later, they would be robbed of a title shot. Three seasons later, they would win it.
And this conquest was another stepping stone - certainly a memorable one - on that climb back to the top of the college football world.