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What If Wednesday: 2003 Fiesta Bowl

Perhaps this one hurts more than any other in program history, what if Miami had won the 2003 Fiesta Bowl?

Miami v Ohio State Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

“What If Wednesday’s” are off to a great start thanks to you guys, and the first two weeks we’ve done this it’s been both a ton of fun and also sad, as we think back to some memorably depressing Canes moments and what could’ve been.

This week is something that you knew you were going to see at some point during this article series, so here I go.

2003 Fiesta Bowl, Miami is taking on Ohio State. We all know the story, the Canes are riding a 34-game winning-streak, trying to repeat as national champions, and cement their place as one of the greatest teams in college football history.

Everybody knows about the pass interference call in overtime, and trust me, we’ll get into that. However, there were several other moments in that I wanted to break down first in a smaller detail. So, sadly, with a tear in my eye, let’s dive in.

First, we start in the third quarter. The Buckeyes have the ball, first and goal on the Miami six-yard-line and up on the Hurricanes 14-7. Quarterback Craig Krenzel dropped back to throw, only to have UM safety Sean Taylor intercept his pass and run it out of the end zone. Though, just as Taylor was crossing the 25-yard-line, Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett stripped the ball from Sean, and the Buckeyes jumped right back on it, regaining possession.

Now that Ohio State was able to get a fresh set of downs, and also within the Miami 30-yard-line, the Buckeyes then managed to tack on a field goal, increasing their lead to 17-7. So, what if Taylor was able to hold on to the ball, and the Canes offense takes the field with that momentum. It was later in that third quarter where Miami scored, bringing the score to 17-14, so maybe if Taylor doesn’t fumble, the Hurricanes offense gets going earlier, and at least gets a field goal. Then, UM isn’t facing a 10-point deficit for a majority of the quarter, and with much more breathing room in the fourth to add on. Also, the Buckeyes offense didn’t end scoring again until overtime, so it’s not like Miami’s defense was giving up anything.

Moving on, what if Willis McGahee doesn’t suffer his tragic knee injury early in the fourth quarter? Not only what happens to McGahee in terms of his future NFL career, what about that drive? McGahee and UM quarterback Ken Dorsey had led Miami into Ohio State territory, and looked like they were going to be able to punch it in. However, the injury, was followed by the Hurricanes having to try a 54-yard field goal by Todd Sievers, which was missed.

Now, finally, to the moment we’ve all been waiting for, or been dreading, either one, we’ve reached the penalty in overtime. Again, I don't need to explain to you guys, all Miami fans know what happened. First overtime, Canes up 24-17, Buckeyes face a fourth-and-three from the five-yard-line, and if Miami stops them, then they’ll be crowned champs for the second straight year. Krenzel drops back to pass, UM defender Glenn Sharpe makes a play and breaks up the pass. Game over, right? Hurricanes players and coaches storm the field when they think it’s a done deal. Wrong. Terry Porter.....the referee, pulls out a late flag, and calls pass interference. You know the rest, I’m not trying to have an aneurysm trying to explain how the game ended.

What I'm here to do is talk about the what ifs. So, what if the penalty flag wasn’t thrown, and the Hurricanes won? Well let’s state the obvious. The Canes would have just won their second consecutive national championship, first time in school history they’ve done that. Ken Dorsey would’ve finished his collegiate career with a 39-1 record as a starter. They increase their winning-streak to 35 games, which would at least reach 42 games by the next season.

Diving into it deeper, Ed Reed said in “30 for 30: The U Part 2” regarding that Fiesta Bowl defeat, “the way we lost that game, I think it took something out of the program.” What if that dark cloud isn’t there? Do the Hurricanes, now that they’ve won two-straight titles, does the 2003 season end differently? I say no. I don’t think that the 2003 team goes into Blacksburg and loses 31-7 to the Hokies, or 10-6 at home to Tennessee. I’m not saying that they win a third straight championship that year, but maybe they do! There’s a great chance they don’t lose both of those games at least. People honestly forget how talented that 2003 team, and yes it would depend if the offense could favor Brock Berlins game a little bit more.

Think about it though, winning a national championship gives your team an obvious boost the next year. The 2002 Hurricanes weren’t as good as the 2001 Hurricanes, but they had that boost, and that boost helped them win 41-16 over the sixth-ranked Gators in Gainesville. You can’t tell me that the boost that comes from winning the 2003 Fiesta Bowl doesn’t carry over into the Virginia Tech matchup that following season.

However, if Miami wins the championship in 2002, do guys like D.J. Williams, Vernon Carey, Jonathan Vilma or Kellen Winslow II return for another season?

Looking even at 2004, they probably don’t lose to Clemson or even Virginia Tech at home, and they sure as heck don’t lose to North Carolina on the road. The loss against the Buckeyes took the swagger away, and if they were able to maintain that swagger, you’re looking at entirely different program. Heck, maybe Larry Coker is head coach for several more years. Even crazier, perhaps Kyle Wright even has a decent career at Miami.

A lot of people like to say that this program took a turn for the worst during the 2005-2006 era, but I say no, that’s just when it hit a new kind of bottom. The 2003 Fiesta Bowl stole the soul right from UM, and they still haven’t recovered. Think about it, if Terry Porter doesn’t throw that flag, are we sitting here in 2019 wondering if the U will ever be back? I doubt it. We may not be showered in several more National Championships, but who’s to say that Miami doesn't grab at least one more?

Those are my thoughts, and obviously there’s still plenty more “what if” scenarios that can be thrown around. Comment if you have any more! Also comment on what other “what ifs” in Miami history you’d like me to write about.