(For those who might want to check out some highlights of the game, check them out here; H/T to CaneFreak2001)
The ball fluttered from Cade McNown's hands and sailed through the early evening sky towards a white jersey in the end zone as the clock struck zeroes on the Orange Bowl scoreboard. This was not an unfamiliar scene, as McNown had already thrown for a UCLA-record 513 yards on the day with 5 touchdowns.
Collective breaths were held in Tallahassee, Knoxville, Manhattan, and LA, where national title hopes hinged on the outcome. (And Arizona was all but waving UCLA pom-poms, with a first-ever trip to the Rose Bowl a lock with a UCLA victory.) The day started with Kansas State, UCLA, and Tennessee all undefeated with one game each left on the slate. K-State was stunned earlier in the Big-12 title game by Texas A&M. UT would kick off later that evening against Mississippi State. Florida State, which bounced back from an early season loss at NC State, was suddenly in the mix, with a few fortunate breaks needed.
And UCLA would finish their 1998 cardiac-inducing season (close shaves vs. Stanford, Oregon, and Oregon State) at Miami......except two and a half months later than scheduled due to the September postponement of the contest because of Hurricane Georges blowing through the Florida Keys. Initially, the game was canceled by the storm, with no make up date scheduled because of the incongruous schedules of the schools. Then, in October, the game was reset for Dec. 5, an oddity for the Bruins, as they routinely ended the season with crosstown rival USC.
Nonetheless, it happened, and UCLA coach Bob Toledo wished his defense had been informed of the change.
The scoreboard in the East end zone read "Miami 49". Across from the 0:00 read "UCLA 45". 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, 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.