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Best to Never Win a Championship: 2002 Miami Hurricanes

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I mean.....how much closer can you get???

FSU v Miami Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Introduction/Recap of 2002 Season

Being a history buff, I jumped all over the chance to write about former great Cane teams when the option was given to us. But looking back on the 2002 team - one of the school’s most talented ever, and certainly the last great UM one - it always gives me pause. And that pause is immediate pain, knowing that but for one knee jerk reaction by an official, this team is a national champion.

I guess that’s just the natural pessimist in me. The tendency to look at the negative ahead of the positive, and lord have mercy, there were some great players, some memorable wins, and a number of great moments to look back on fondly. Miami won the state championship, which is nothing to sneeze at then or now, with a throttling of Florida and another thrilling win over Florida State that came down to a final kick – this time wide left. Sluggish wins over Big East rivals Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech sandwiched around a dominant performance at Syracuse late in the season perfectly highlighted what Miami was in 2002 – a tremendously talented team that was head and shoulders above the rest of the Big East and almost all of the rest of college football…..but one that didn’t always play like it. One week after needing the fourth quarter to pull away at West Virginia, Miami needed a massive fourth quarter to take the lead and put away 1-7 Rutgers, turning a 17-8 deficit with 18 minutes left into a 42-17 convincing score line.

And, in a game I still haven’t re-watched to this day (save bits and pieces for writing purposes), it was the hot and cold nature of this team that ultimately did in the Canes in a crushing loss to #2 Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl for the national title. After Dorsey found Roscoe Parrish for a 25-yard touchdown with 4:16 left in the first quarter, Miami allowed 17 straight points before Willis McGahee finally found the end zone with 2:24 left in the third quarter. McGahee was carted off after suffering a gruesome knee injury early in the fourth quarter.

Yet, Todd Sievers nailed the most gutsy, pressure-packed kick you’ll ever see from 40 yards out with 3 seconds left to send the game into overtime. After Dorsey found Kellen Winslow, Jr. for a 7-yard touchdown, Miami’s defense forced a 4th and 14, which QB Craig Krenzel converted, and then a 4th and 3, which every fan knows about. Glenn Sharpe broke up a pass intended for Chris Gamble, and Miami had won the title. Players and coaches spilled onto the field. Only official Terry Porter threw a flag extremely late and killed the celebration just as it was kicking off. We know the rest. It sucks, beyond anything I’ve ever felt as a fan.

Best moment and best game

Miami v Florida Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

There are a number of candidates for best moment, including the furious comeback against Florida State (hello screen pass to McGahee), but the most impactful and – to this day – unforgettable single moment came against the other in-state rival.

The 2002 season started out with a 63-17 thrashing of Florida A&M, setting up a showcase with #6 Florida in Gainesville, the Canes’ first trip to the Swamp since 1986. After a back and forth first half, Miami surged ahead 27-10 in the third quarter after Dorsey’s third of four touchdown passes. With Florida threatening to top off a 92-yard scoring drive and put real pressure on Miami, safety Ed Sikes lifted his arms up high (not easy at the time, as he was battling a shoulder injury) at the goal line and pulled down the ball, racing 99 yards the other way for a game-sealing touchdown. Miami went on to win 41-16.

Florida State v Miami Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

As far as the best game, Wide Left clearly takes the cake. After the Canes fell down 27-14, Dorsey – who was quiet for the middle quarters of the game – took over. He ended a 70-yard drive with a 2-yard TD toss to Kevin Beard, and it was 27-21 Noles with 8:10 left. Then, after an FSU punt, McGahee took a screen pass 68 yards into the FSU red zone. On the next play, Jason Geathers ran 11 yards for the go ahead score. Florida State would get into field goal range with :01 left, but Xavier Beitia’s kick hooked wide left from 43 yards out, and the stadium shook in celebration. I will never forget the pandemonium from the student section after that play. One of the top five games I’ve ever been to in person, easily.

Best player

Willis McGahee carries the ball

There were certainly many standouts in 2002, but for me it was McGahee, who ended up finishing fourth in the Heisman voting (a joke, looking back at the other candidates). Really, how could I list any other Cane here??? His 2002 performance was the best by a running back in school history, albeit cut one quarter and one overtime session too short. He set SIX (!!!!!) school records in 2002, including rushing yards (1753), carries (282), touchdowns (28, third most in NCAA history at the time), and all-purpose yards (2108). The power, speed, and vision he ran with was something to behold, and it’s fitting that he set the school record for touchdowns in a game (6) in his final game in the Orange Bowl against a hated rival (Virginia Tech) to top off the last perfect regular season in school history. What. A. Year.

Where it went wrong

Watch, if you must....

It went wrong when the Canes failed to stop Ohio State on fourth down twice in overtime. On 4th and 14, needing only to stop Ohio State on one play to claim the title, Krenzel stepped up in the pocket and completed a deep out to Michael Jenkins for 15 yards, in front of both Sean Taylor and Sharpe. Going back and watching it, this is maybe just as painful as the flag on 4th and 3. How Jenkins was 3 yards more shallow than both of them with clear separation – and not bracketed – is crushing.

And, of course, on 4th and 3, on what was a bang-bang play at best when the ball arrived, a flag flew from Porter for pass interference. It was late. It was VERY late. “Bad call!” shouted announcer Dan Fouts. It was so late that the NCAA brass allegedly put the Miami sticker on the trophy as national champion during the immediate celebration, or so I was told in class by the girlfriend of a former starter who was there. When Ohio State won, they apparently couldn’t get the Miami sticker off, so they put the Ohio State one over it. If that’s true, THAT, my friends, is the ultimate kick to the pants.

Why the 2002 team was the best to never win a title

I mean, they celebrated a title, even if just for a matter of seconds. How much closer can you get?! What other non-championship UM team had their logo actually stuck on the championship trophy (allegedly)???

The 2002 team was the extension of one of the most dominant eras in school history, carrying the winning streak to 34 games…. from 2000 to the brink of a second national title. It’s hard to imagine ever coming closer. The 1986 and 2000 squads are certainly in the conversation in my mind for different reasons. Both of those teams beat number one teams and were loaded with talent. However, the 1986 team’s loss to Penn State was the most underwhelming single performance by any UM team on our list of teams. The 2000 team was so talented – maybe the most talented Miami team ever, led by seniors Santana Moss, Reggie Wayne, and Dan Morgan, among others. However, at least record-wise, they were on the same level as two other teams and one game back of #1 OU, so they weren’t head and shoulders the clear best team during the regular season like the 1986 and 2002 teams. That said, leaving them out of the title game was objectively wrong due to their wins over both #1 FSU and #2 Virginia Tech, something no other team could boast. In 2002, there was no question Miami was the #1 team in the country entering the Fiesta Bowl, and had Porter left his flag in his pocket as he should have, we’re championing them as another undefeated and supremely talented team not far afield from the 2001 squad.

For all those reasons, and given Dorsey’s experience/steady hand and McGahee’s absolutely iconic season, I’d argue the 2002 is the greatest team to come up short of a title.