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Willis McGahee’s Incredible 2002 Season Deserves A Deep Dive

Oh, and he absolutely deserved the Heisman Trophy that year as well.

Willis McGahee carries the ball

There have been many great running backs who have come through the Miami Hurricanes football program besides Willis McGahee. Some have had better college careers. Some have had better NFL careers (though if McGahee’s knee doesn’t explode in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, that would’ve been a different story). Having said that, no Canes running back had a better single-season than McGahee’s 2002 campaign. He was a beast from start to finish. Further, he absolutely should’ve won the Heisman Trophy that year. The fact that he didn’t still bothers me. Worse than that though, I think his 2002 season is now under appreciated. Not anymore!

First, let’s get to the stats:

282 carries, 1753 yards, 28 touchdowns, 6.2 ypc, 27 receptions, 355 yards, 13.1 ypr

Miami v West Virginia
I love those all-white uniforms!
Photo By Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

I had to put the stat line in bold and italics. Look at those numbers! My goodness. I vividly remember being completely bummed out when I heard Frank Gore tore his ACL in spring practice. He was going to be the guy to replace Clinton Portis and keep the stud running back tradition going for Miami’s title-defense season. I didn’t know much about McGahee. He played in mop-up duty during the 2001 season. He also played fullback sometimes when the starters were still out there. That guy was going to take the place of Portis and Gore? Some of the hope for the 2002 season seemed lost to me.

McGahee’s first start was just okay: 6 rushes for 60 yards and a touchdown against FAMU. It was FAMU, therefore those numbers didn’t really mean anything. Plus, it’s not like he went off in the game. I still wasn’t sure what Miami had at running back. It was a concern.

Then, the Canes traveled to Gainesville to take on the #6 Florida Gators on September 7th, 2002. I was 19 years old at the time and remember being so mad I couldn’t legally bet on the game (mostly because I lived in Florida, not because of my age). The Gators were favored against the defending national champions and #1 team in the country? It was ridiculous. At least I got to watch McGahee’s coming out party if I couldn’t win any money. Oh, and Miami won, 41-16.

McGahee gashed the Gators defense all day long: 24 rushes for 204 yards. It was a dominating performance. No, he didn’t get in the end zone. He didn’t need to as he would do plenty of that the rest of the season. What he did do was show the power, speed, and vision I had not seen a Canes running back have up until that point. Sorry Edgerrin James fans, McGahee was bigger, stronger, and faster. He also looked menacing with that tinted visor in his helmet and that #2 jersey coming barreling towards defenders. Canes fans knew at that moment that they had someone special in the backfield. I think I’ve watched the highlight video below at least a dozen times.

Real quick: all the below videos come from canefreak2001 on YouTube. If you like rewatching early 2000s Canes football, it’s the channel for you.

McGahee was just getting started. He rushed for 134 yards and 4 touchdowns on just 21 carries at Temple, then topped that a week later with 135 yards and 2 touchdowns on only 17 carries vs Boston College in the Orange Bowl. People started to take notice. Who was this guy putting up these big numbers? Wasn’t he supposed to back up Frank Gore?

After a ho-hum 11 carry, 107 yard, and 3 touchdown day against UConn, the Canes traveled to Tallahassee. McGahee was held to under a hundred yards rushing for the first time since the season-opener, going for 95 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries. However, he made the biggest play of the game, taking a Ken Dorsey screen pass 68 yards down the right sideline to set up the game-winning score in the come-from-behind victory. Please enjoy.

After that thrilling victory, McGahee had 112 yards and 3 touchdowns at West Virginia. It took him 32 carries to reach those numbers though. His 3.5 ypc that game would be his worst of the regular season.

#2 bounced back for a huge game against upset-minded Rutgers in dreary New Jersey. I remember this game too well. It was one of the weirdest Miami games I have ever watched. The Canes sleepwalked through three quarters and actually trailed Greg Schiano’s squad 17-14 going into the fourth quarter. No matter, McGahee finished with 187 yards and 2 touchdowns on 23 carries in the 42-17 win.

Willis McGahee was a Heisman Trophy candidate at this point in the season, but his next four games shot him up in the conversation and should’ve won him the award in my humble opinion.

First, Miami traveled to Knoxville to play the unranked Tennessee Volunteers. I can still picture Kirk Herbstreit picking the Vols on College Gameday that morning, despite their 5-3 record and hobbling Casey Clausen at quarterback. Sorry Kirk. This is another favorite game of mine to watch. The final score was only 26-3, but Miami completely dominated the game from start to finish. McGahee finished with 154 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries. Listen to how much the announcers love Willis’ performance.

Miami then traveled home and took on a talented Pittsburgh team 12 days later for Thursday Night College Football on ESPN. The Canes offense was out of sorts and ineffective for much of the first half. Then McGahee struck. He broke a 69-yard run to tie the game at 14 with just over two minutes left in the second quarter. With that burst, McGahee single-handedly took the momentum back from the Panthers. Miami held on to win 28-21 and McGahee finished with 19 carries for 159 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Miami went on the road to the Carrier Dome for their penultimate game of the 2002 regular season. Syracuse was feeling good and probably thought they had a chance to top the champs. Oh no no no. McGahee sucked the air out of the building with a 61-yard touchdown run on the Canes’ opening possession. He then scored on a 51-yard run in the third quarter that looked almost identical to the run against Pitt the previous game. McGahee left Upstate New York with 14 carries for 134 yards, including those two long touchdown runs. Side note: if you watch the video below, please stay until the end for Sean Taylor’s catch-and-run touchdown off of a fake punt. It’s incredible.

Heading into December of 2002, the Miami Hurricanes had two Heisman Trophy candidates on their team in McGahee and Ken Dorsey. The season finale against Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl to secure a place in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl was an opportunity to put on a show. Miami fans remember the awful, failed halfback pass attempt from McGahee to Dorsey that resulted in a 99-yard pick-six. Whatever. We’re keeping it positive here. Willis McGahee put on a show in his last game in front of the Canes faithful. He rushed for 205 yards and 6 touchdowns on 39 carries. Rushing for 6 TDs in a game is a Miami Hurricanes record I don’t see being broken any time soon. McGahee’s Heisman Trophy argument was solidified. He should be taking the hardware home after that performance to cap off a second straight undefeated regular season for the best team in college football.

Sadly, there are rarely storybook endings in real life. Both McGahee and Dorsey traveled to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony. The narrative was that the teammates stole votes from each other. I guess that makes sense. As much as I love Ken Dorsey with all my heart, Willis McGahee was the guy who should’ve been getting all the first place votes. USC’s Carson Palmer won the award, Iowa QB Brad Banks finished second (Brad effing Banks, seriously?!?), and Larry Johnson finished third with a 2,000 yard season where he racked up a ton of yards against bad teams. McGahee finished fourth with 101 first place votes, while Dorsey finished fifth, but had 122 first place votes. The whole thing makes me sick. Johnson’s Penn State was 9-3, then lost to #19 Auburn in the 2003 Citrus Bowl. Garbage. Banks and Iowa finished 11-1, then lost to USC in the 2003 Orange Bowl after playing a ridiculously easy Big Ten schedule. Carson Palmer’s USC lost to Kansas State and Washington State during the season. Trash.

Miami Hurricanes vs. Temple Owls
Miami’s two Heisman Trophy finalists, in the order they should have finished, ABOVE EVERYONE!

We all know what happened in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl. I’ve never watched the travesty a second time. I don’t hate myself. Most Canes fans shutter when the game is brought up. The only thing I’ll say is this: McGahee was gaining steam against a tired defense in the fourth quarter. If he doesn’t get that helmet to his knee, he leads Miami down the field and the game is over in regulation. No controversy. No heartbreak. Whatever. Beyond the game that night, I wanted to see McGahee play at full strength in the NFL. As accomplished as his pro career was, I can only imagine what he would’ve done with two completely healthy knees.

Despite the injury, Willis McGahee was the best player on the best team in college football in 2002. By far. I honestly don’t think it’s close. He was one of the best college running backs I’ve ever seen and should be recognized as such.

That’s what I’m talking about, Willis!