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My Mount Rushmore of Miami underdog wins

Four upsets that helped form Miami’s championship runs.

Edgerrin James

It’s underdog week at SB Nation, and in keeping with this theme, I thought about some things that make sports great: upset wins. In the past few decades, there haven’t been many circumstances where Miami was a huge underdog and prevailed. This is in part because Miami had tons of success in large parts of the 80s, 90s and 2000s and weren’t underdogs that much, and in part because they simply didn’t win all that many big games when given the chance from 2005 onwards.

However, when Miami set up those championship runs in the 80s, and again in 2000-2002, they were spearheaded by some momentous upset wins led by some of Miami’s most iconic heroes. Since they’re all equally important to me, I list them in chronological order.....

Miami 26, #19 Penn State 10; November 3, 1979

If you’re looking for a game that showed Schnellenberger was starting to mold Miami into something serious, this is the game that showed it was starting to happen. Yes, a road weary Miami (who traveled a college football record 28,000+ miles that season) finished the 1979 season at 5-6, but for one afternoon in Happy Valley, PA, Miami showed it was not the same Sun Tan U ready to be pushed over by the Penn States and Notre Dames of the world. Against a future-NFL-laden Penn State team (including Mike Munchak, Irv Pankey, and Matt Millen), Miami wasn’t expected to do much. After all, they were starting some freshman QB from East Brady, PA named Jim Kelly, who Joe Paterno had recruited as a linebacker and not a quarterback. Oops.

Kelly came up big in pressure situations, throwing an 8-yard touchdown pass to Jim Joiner to extend Miami’s lead to 10-0 in the second quarter, and then found Pat Walker for a score to push Miami ahead to 26-10, the final margin. For the day, Kelly completed 18 of 31 passes for 273 yards and three touchdowns. Not a bad day’s work for one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game.

1984 Orange Bowl; #7 Miami 31, #1 Nebraska 30; January 2, 1984

If I had to put one game as the upset to end all upsets in Miami history, this would have to be it, far and away. After ripping off 10 straight wins after a season-opening loss at Florida, Miami was set to play in its bowl game against the undefeated top-ranked Cornhuskers led by Turner Gill and Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier. Nebraska entered as a 10.5-point favorite over the Canes.

Bernie Kosar and the Miami offense was hot in the early going. Kosar found tight end Glenn Dennison for two touchdowns, as Miami mounted a 17-0 first quarter lead. However, Nebraska made things interesting in the second quarter, scoring on a 19-yard “fumblerooski” run by Dean Steinkuhler on the way to 17 unanswered points. Miami continued the back and forth affair in the third quarter, capping off 75 and 73-yard TD drives on runs by Alonzo Highsmith and Albert Bentley. Things seemed even more grim for Nebraska when Rozier left the game with an injury.

But that’s when things got really interesting. Backup running back Jeff Smith scored his second touchdown of the fourth quarter with 0:48 left, bringing Nebraska within one at 31-30. While an extra point and an all but certain tie would have brought Nebraska it’s first title under Tom Osborne, he elected to go for the outright win. Gill rolled out and threw a pass towards Smith, but Miami safety Ken Calhoun made probably the greatest defensive play in the history of the Miami program, deflecting away the pass and securing an Orange Bowl victory and, ultimately, Miami’s first ever national title.

Miami 49, #2 UCLA 45; December 5, 1998

In a game that was rescheduled from September due to Hurricane Georges, UCLA-Miami would help decide the participants in the 1998 national championship game. Kansas State was playing Texas A&M for the Big 12 title, Tennessee was facing Mississippi State for the SEC crown, and #2 UCLA was at an afterthought Miami team. Who knew that Miami, who entered this game at 7-3 and on the heels of a 66-13 blasting at Syracuse, would be the one to serve as the fly in the ointment to create total BCS chaos?

But that’s exactly what happened. UCLA entered the game as a 9.5-point favorite. With the eyes of the nation on them, Miami struggled early and often to contain the UCLA passing game. Cade McNown finished with 513 yards passing, and his third quarter surge, including passing touchdowns of 61 yards to Brad Melsby and 59 yards to Brian Poli-Dixon, put UCLA ahead 38-21 near the end of the third quarter. It seemed as though UCLA was to be the first to lock up its spot in the championship game in Tempe.

Edgerrin James had other plans. On the strength of a 39-carry, school record 299-yard performance, Miami owned the final 16 minutes of the game, scoring 28 points to take a 49-45 lead with 0:50 left on a James 1-yard touchdown run. The final drive was spurred by a forced fumble by Ed Reed that was recovered by Delvin Brown.

UCLA had one final push in them, getting all the way down to the Miami 29-yard line, but a final McNown heave to the end zone was incomplete. Tennessee won later and met up with Florida State - an unfortunate beneficiary of Miami’s win - in the Fiesta Bowl. Butch Davis secured his biggest win to date and continued the momentum of Miami’s rebuild, which would come to full fruition two seasons later.

#7 Miami 27, #1 Florida State 24; October 7, 2000

I couldn’t find the point spread for this game, but it doesn’t really matter. FSU hadn’t lost in a season and a half, was the defending national champ, and was riding the hot hand of QB Chris Weinke, who would go on to win the Heisman trophy that year. Meanwhile, Miami was continuing its steady rise back to the top, having dropped a heartbreaker at Washington three weeks prior. The Canes also were saddled with a five game losing streak in the series. There’s no doubt the Canes were the underdog in this matchup.

Miami dominated the first half, taking a 17-0 lead into the locker room after Dan Morgan intercepted Weinke near the goal line right before half. Weinke, who threw for an eye-popping 496 yards on the day, brought FSU back to a 20-17 deficit late in the game. After a Najeh Davenport fumble with under 3 minutes to play, Weinke engineered a touchdown drive, finding Atrews Bell for a 29-yard score with only 1:37 left and a 24-20 lead.

With 1:32 left on the clock and 68 yards to go, the legend of Ken Dorsey was born. Chunk plays to Moss, then Wayne, then Moss again put the Canes in the red zone. Then, the tight end known by the announcer as the “backup tight end” became a national name, when Jeremy Shockey caught a pass from Dorsey for the go ahead score 27-24.

FSU would miraculously get in range to try a 49-yard field goal, but - like every other pressure kick over the previous decade - it swung wide right. The Canes had finally slayed the dragon and snapped the streak in what would be their first of two top 2 wins (also against Virginia Tech). Robbed of a chance to play for the title, they made good the next year.

What do you think? What would be on your Mount Rushmore of underdog wins? Let’s hear it.