All eyes will be on newly renovated Beaver Stadium on September 1st at 8:00 pm. Where else would they be? Two perennial powers squaring off on a Saturday night, prime time under the lights? Jo Pa chasing another victory as he tries to surpass Bear Bryant's long standing win record? The subplot of miracle boy Adam Taliaferro overcoming paralysis with the intent of leading an angry, determined bunch of Lions onto the field of battle, ready to erase the taste of that 5-7 season out of their mouths? If I were a sentimental fool I'd almost find myself rooting for Penn State strictly on the drama factor alone. Only one problem…
I hate Penn State.
Actually, I loathe them. I won't ever let myself feel sorry for a program which has broken Miami hearts across the globe. They've burned us twice and I'll never forgive them.
Diehards, get those hankies ready because I'm taking you back to a dark day in Miami history: January 2, 1987. A day we never expected -- a day we want to forget.
Tempe, Arizona and an 11-0 ranking behind us, our troops arrive in the desert ready for war. The atmosphere is ripe for a Hurricane beatdown. In a season that brought victories over Florida, Oklahoma and Florida State the Canes earned that #1 ranking and looked to have the flash and flair to light the Nittany Lions up like a Christmas tree. They weren't ready for our speed. They couldn't contain our Heisman Trophy winning quarterback. Their roster didn't sport the names Testaverde, Brown, Irvin, Bratton and a set of Blades. We were the big, bad Hurricanes – America's Nightmare – yet we became our own worst enemy.
Miami totaled 445 yards to Penn State's 162. Unfortunately we also led the turnover battle with five interceptions and two fumbles. The Canes held that 10-7 advantage until late in the 4th quarter, fell behind 14-10 and were lead on that potential game winning drive with our Heisman Trophy winner running the show. A storybook ending was in the cards. Six consecutive passes by Vinny had the Canes sitting pretty on PSU's six-yard line. Break out the champagne Miami fans, we're about to claim title number two.
Ummm Vinny, the guys in blue are on the other team.
Pete "Gift"opoulos received the present of his life when #14 sent that perfect spiral into his breadbasket and a Canes' championship down the toilet.
Miami got a little revenge against Penn State in the early nineties on a smaller scale. Then again damn near anyone who crossed the Canes' path in that era got served up. We expected to win. Losing wasn't tolerated.
The 26-20 victory over the Nittany Lions in 1991 got lost in the shuffle of another dominant Hurricane season. The real drama of that undefeated year was the 17-16 thriller over the Noles. "Wide Right I" was much more memorable than a midseason take down of Penn State. Then again, maybe I'm just spoiled and expected to win every home game in the midst of "The Streak."
Nothing was taken for granted in 1992. A preseason relocation to Vero Beach via Andrew, the Canes had a few lucky breaks in what has come to be remembered as "The Season of the Storm." Three nailbiters in a row. The 8-7 defensive battle with Arizona and the19-16 epic win over the Noles kicked off the trifecta. As if that tussle with Bobby's boys didn't have the team and fans completely drained, Miami headed up to Happy Valley a week later to take on Penn State and their hostile crowd of 96,704.
Another defensive battle seemed to be in store in yet another low scoring classic. Indeed it was the defense that proved to be the final nail in the coffin when Darren Krein picked off an errant Penn State pass and rumbled to the end zone for a Miami touchdown. After sixty minutes of ball the scoreboard read 16-10 and the Canes won their 23rd game in a row.
When the two teams faced again in 1999 after a seven-year hiatus, everything had changed. Miami was at the tail end of the lean, hellish, probation years while Penn State was atop the college football world. Sporting a #2 ranking, defensive star power such as LaVar Arrington and Brandon Short and fired up Joe Paterno, the Nittany Lions were ready to assume the role of bully. Meanwhile the #8 Canes, fresh of an upset of another Big Ten power Ohio State, knew they were one more big win away from answering their critics and officially being "back" to the Miami of old.
Down 17-3 in the third quarter in a soggy Orange Bowl, things looked grim. Kenny Kelly couldn't throw a tight spiral if his MLB contract depended on it. But out of nowhere salvation came and sported the names James Jackson and Santana Moss. JJ took an 18-yard run to the house to make it a respectable 17-10 heading into the fourth quarter.
Was that old Miami Mystique ready to make an appearance after so many heartbreaking losses in the Butch Davis era? Was 1999 to be the year that perennial powers began bowing back down to the boys from the bottom? This was too good to be true. Cane fans had barely put down the traditional four fingers signaling the final quarter when a wobbly 40-yard Kenny Kelly pass found its way into the arms of the ultimate mover and shaker Santana Moss. 17-17 with almost a full quarter of ball left to play and Miami had snatched momentum.
As expected, Penn State struck again with a mere three-point flesh wound – not a dagger. Miami was in the driver's seat down 20-17. Three minutes and a huge Richard Mercier block later, Mr. Jackson scampered 39 yards down the sideline hurdling one diving tackler after the next. Although it was raining, the sun seemed to be shining on the Canes.
Now 23-20 after a missed extra point by Andy Crosland. Would this come back to haunt UM?
Of course it would. With less than two minutes remaining, Butch was ready to give Jo Pa a dose of his own smash mouth medicine. In an attempt to run out the clock and keep the ball in the hands of the Miami offense, three running plays in a row were called – even on a long 4th and 2. Due to the missed point after, a field goal would not be enough to protect the lead. A touchdown would still beat you.
Everyone in that stadium saw James Jackson get the first down by at least a yard except for the guys in the black and white stripes. Turnover on downs. Three point lead. Step it up Canes. Stand your ground. The Nittany Lions needed 79 yards. Gut check time in the truest sense of the phrase. Hold them. No game breaking plays.
Then "it" happened.
The biggest fear became a reality. Lightning struck twice. That sickening feeling we all felt on January 2, 1987 returned all these years later.
The snap, the drop back, Dan Morgan lunges and buries a shoulder in between the 1 and 4 on Kevin Thompson's #14 jersey to take him out. The ball is released, it spirals and sails, that gangly Chafie Field has a step on Mike Rumph, then another. Rumph extends his cast-covered arm with the hopes of a deflection. He comes up an inch short. Fields catches it in high stride. Number 8's injured arm makes one last grasp at that white jersey and comes up with air. Fifteen yards later Ed Reed make a last diving attempt and comes up with nothing but turf.
Touchdown Penn State. Wave goodbye to that Miami momentum.
A game-winning drive? Not with Kenny Kelly behind the wheel. These young Canes were dejected. They hadn't come this close to victory only to have it snatched away. They hadn't had their backs to the wall this late in a game that already appeared to be sealed up. This was crushing. The final 1:41 of this contest was a blur. The towel had been thrown in. Chalk it up – 27-23. Penn State stole yet another game that the Miami program needed.
You wonder why I feel no remorse for their program? Any idea why I could care less if Jo Pa ever reaches that all time victory record? Their storybook ending means nothing to me. They owe us. We need to give them theirs. Stick it to them. Kill their spirit on a day in Penn State history when winning would mean absolutely everything to them. Break their damn hearts already. Be that nightmare finish to a day that will live on in infamy if they were to win. Don't let them erase the bad taste the 2000 season brought them. Deny them rush, thrill and satisfaction that a win over an incredibly talented Miami program would give them. Make September 1st be our day in the sun. Let the Nittany Lions set up the joke – watch the Canes deliver that punch line.
On the surface, this season opener is just another game with two legitimate football programs. Scratch that surface and see the true history of this rivalry. A hundred years from now Miami will still owe Penn State for 1986 and 1999. We can't take those two games back, but we can make sure that we never have to relive moments like that ever again. George Santayana said those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Remember the past, Canes. Hurt somebody. Marinate on that bitter taste and make every down count.
Beat Penn State, boys.
Beat them bad.
Born and raised in Miami, Chris Bello now lives in San Diego, CA and works as a freelance writer. Feel free to send your comments or to contact him for potential writing assignments at email@example.com