Hangover Remedy

It's been a 237 day hangover for Canes fans, but hair of the dog will be served Thursday evening in the form of a season opener at Louisiana Tech. In what Miami faithful will unanimously refer to as the longest and most painful off-season in decades – if not ever – this year's opener might bring as much anticipation as last season's National Championship game.

A somewhat new look Canes will take the field Thursday evening. Long gone and ready to make some noise in the NFL are stars like Ken Dorsey, Willis McGahee, Andre Johnson and Jerome McDougle. These first round draft picks left a mark on the University of Miami's football program, but make no mistake – they are replaceable. The Hurricanes were winning National Championships while those stars of 2002 were in grade school – and the program will survive as future stars come and go, taking their talents to that next level as well. While other schools watch in awe, Miami legitimately reloads year in and year out. Incomprehensible to others, it's just a Canes thing to us.

Larry Coker calls this team the fastest he has ever seen at Miami. He and running backs coach Don Soldinger mention Frank Gore in the same breath as Barry Sanders in his Oklahoma State playing days. Randy Shannon promises the most aggressive defense Coral Gables has ever seen. Tight end Kellen Winslow is the self proclaimed "Chosen One" – and after 11 receptions for 122 yards and a touchdown in the National Championship game, who can argue? Dorsey predecessor Brock Berlin was 45-0 in high school and won every accolade outside the Nobel Peace Prize. Wide receiver and punt returner Roscoe Parrish is considered more explosive than the versatile Santana Moss.

The list goes on, but one question remains unanswered - how hungry are these 2003 Canes?

Famished. Starving. Ready to feast.

Comparisons are being drawn to legendary ghosts of Hurricane past. Many are hoping this year's bunch can accomplish feats similar to those of the talented championship teams of 1987 and 1989. Coming off of a key loss the previous seasons, replacing a quarterback, overcoming a challenging schedule – all while finding their way to the championship game.

Or do the 2003 Canes bear any resemblance to the 1993 squad who underachieved their way to a 9-3 season after losing the National Championship the previous season?

Smart money points to a 1987-like season for this current crop of Canes. The talent level is as good as ever and last season's complacency went out the window when Terry Porter's flag ended a 34-game winning streak. Miami went through the motions last year while their aura and abilities carried them to a few victories. Florida State, West Virginia and Rutgers come to mind. When the Canes felt like proving a point, teams like Florida and Tennessee were utterly destroyed and embarrassed on a national stage. A false sense of invincibility set in while fans and players alike seemed to be feeding off of the headlines and history in the making.

The Canes were untouchable for so long. They were better than everybody. They were faster than everybody. No one had Miami's talent. No one had that intangible or mystique that surrounds defending champs and a team that hadn't seen a loss in two seasons. This was the Miami Hurricanes. Losing wasn't an option.

The wrong Miami showed up for three quarters in Tempe. The complacent Canes struggled until Kellen Winslow demanded the ball and elevated his game to an almost spiritual level. A 17-14 game with almost a quarter remaining, the Canes had the momentum until McGahee was delivered a knock out blow that forced Miami to tread water instead of going for the jugular.

The rest is for the history books. Overtime. A picture perfect Winslow touchdown for the lead. 4th and 14 – no excuse for that. Craig Krenzel to Chris Gamble on 4th and 3. Sharpe's aggressive defense. No catch. A short celebration of championship #6. Count to five. Watch that bogus flag hit the orange turf. Question the outcome of that game for the next nine months and ultimately the next ninety years.

Ohio State made the most of a golden opportunity while Miami couldn't overcome the loss of McGahee and Terry Porter's lapse of judgment. They fell a yard short of winning the National Championship twice in one night.

237 days later, it's hard to remember the joy and elation that goes with winning. Last season ended on the ultimate sour note. A loss is tolerable. Having a championship wrongly snatched from your grip as the "M" in Miami was being etched on it is downright criminal. One can only imagine what was going through the players' heads that evening and this off-season. What will be pumping through their veins as they storm out of that tunnel Thursday evening?

While we all know the Bulldogs won't roll over, one must feel for them. They aren't ready for what is going to take place Thursday night under the lights. They've never played in a high profile game like last year's Fiesta Bowl and they certainly haven't experienced such a loss with everything on the line.

On an average day, Miami is too much for Louisiana Tech. Combine that with what transpired on January 3rd, 2003 and the fact that they are the first opponent the Canes will face since that evening in the desert. Some aggression will be taken out on these boys from the WAC by one of college football's elite programs. Miami will look to make a statement to the college football world that there is no such thing as a post-Fiesta slump. There wasn't one in 1987 and there sure as hell won't be one in 2003. The bitterness of the loss will be channeled into the fire that drives this team towards New Orleans and another title game berth.

Quarterback Luke McCown earned Miami's respect in 2000 as a sophomore. His 72 attempts for 418 yards and three touchdowns showed the Canes that he came ready to play and that he has no qualms going up against one of the top defenses in the nation.

Two years later a more mature McCown welcomes Miami to his hood and will again be ready to shine. A few veteran Bulldog receivers will help his cause while offensive coordinator Conroy Hines will let McCown air it out all evening long in search of the big play.

Problem is he doesn't have an offensive line that will be ready to weather Miami's storm or a ground game. Last year's 1,000 yard rusher Joe Smith is gone while senior Ralph Davis and sophomore Ryan Moats will look to pick up the slack.

The 2003 incarnation of Miami's line is the supposed weak point of this year's defense. A handful of starters have departed and there is a lack of big game experience.

Last year it was the secondary that performed under the microscope and made their statement in week two against the Florida Gators with a smothering performance. In 2001, the knock was on the linebacking core and question marks surrounding losses that team incurred.

In all cases, the Miami defense passed their tests with flying colors. Expect the same in 2003 and prepare to witness the defensive line's coming out party in Shreveport.

Tonight will be a character boost for this young squad. Experienced players like Vince Wilfork and Santonio Thomas will anchor that end position and are more than ready to take the field, showing the youngsters how it's done. Other first year starters and back ups such as John Square, Thomas Carroll, Orien Harris, Alton Wright and Baraka Atkins will see playing time and while preparing to silence critics nationwide.

The defensive line will dominate the inexperienced Louisiana Tech offensive line and will cause fits for McCown. He'll get his attempts and will complete some passes and could have some shining moments – but he won't pick apart a veteran Miami secondary or escape the gifted linebacking core either.

While Rocky McIntosh will not make the trip due to injury an almost 100% Jon Vilma will see some playing time. Capable back ups Darrell McClover and Leon Williams will fill in and take care of business as well. Many are anticipating Williams' first start as he is next in a long line of great Miami linebacker. Thursday night could be Leon's coming out party. A healthy D.J. Williams will provide the veteran leadership and stability that the core requires.

Offensively it is time for Miami to kick the tires, look under the hood, take her out for a spin and open it up.

The past three offensive units were explosive and could change a game in one play. Dorsey was the constant and he always had game breaking runners in James Jackson, Clinton Portis and last year's out of nowhere performance by McGahee. With Berlin at the helm and Gore taking back his starting gig, that big play ability returns and should surface against the Bulldogs. Both Berlin and Gore sat out 2002 and can't wait to shine in 2003.

While Miami's reshuffled offensive line won't get much of a test until later in the season, the season opener will allow line coach Art Kehoe to make necessary substitutions, determining the best line up for success. Familiar names like Vernon Carey and Carlos Joseph return - and in much better physical shape than 2002. Both will attack this new season with a vengeance while new starters Chris Myers, Joel Rodriguez and former tight end Eric Winston round out the quintet. In time, this offensive line can be one of Miami's best but it will have to be a quick learning curve if the Canes expect to go undefeated in 2003.

Miami's slew of young, talented receivers will be vying for a starting job as Jason Geathers is out due to injury and Parrish will see limited action due to a healing knee. A renewed Kevin Beard has impressed coaches and will return from last season's ACL injury as the veteran receiver and mouthpiece for this unit. Ryan Moore will finally show his skills to Hurricane Nation after a few years sitting behind talented upperclassmen. Freshman Darnell Jenkins looks to pick up where he left off in the spring game while highly touted and anticipated newcomer Devin Hester could see action at receiver as well as punt returns.

While Louisiana Tech returns ¾ of last year's secondary, that point is almost moot when an entirely new linebacking core and half the defensive line of a 4-8 team need to be replaced. The Bulldogs' defense gave up 426 points in 2002 and an average of 176 rushing yards per game to running backs nowhere near Gore's league. Through the air, opponents scored 24 touchdowns and by ground, 30. A green defense is just what Miami needs to break in this fiery new offense.

Intangibles will have to carry the 2003 Canes to make up for the small drop off in talent and experience. Special teams will have a chance to get its game together in the season opener. The Canes struggled in the field position battle in 2002 and need to dominate this season.

No more three yard punts against Florida State in the game's waning moments or blocked punts against the likes of lowly Rutgers.

Freshmen Jon Peattie and Bryan Monroe are duking it out for punting duties. Both should see action and a true starter needs to emerge before a late September trip to Boston College.

On returns, Parrish and Hester could share duties against Louisiana Tech and need to set the tone. Explosive punt returners have been a strength for the Canes the past three seasons and that needs to remain a constant.

On the defensive side of the ball, aggressive defense play must create turnovers that weren't there last season. The 2001 Canes thrived on the mistakes of others en route to a title berth. In the Rose Bowl it was the capitalization of Nebraska's mistakes that allowed Miami to jump to a 34-0 halftime lead and to put the game on cruise control for the second half of a 37-14 blowout.

So much is on the line tonight under the lights in Shreveport. First off, a release of the frustration the Fiesta Bowl provided for players, coaches and fans alike. Miami needs to do more than beat Louisiana Tech. A statement must be made. Some recent headlines mentioned that the Canes were still pouting over being jobbed in Tempe. Others feel that the three year run has to come to an end – and what better time than now? There is talk that Miami is vulnerable and beatable. Amazing what kind of fabricated hype can be created from a game that could've gone either way if a referee didn't throw that unwarranted flag. Then again, the 2001 defending champs were greeted with headlines of "o-ver-ra-ted" as they entered the 2002 season. Too much talent departed was the media's mantra that year. This year it is talk of a hungover, depleted bunch that isn't mentally prepared to bounce back from the stunning loss.

The jury's out on this year's bunch. The 2003 Canes are ranked #3 and have to prove themselves again to the college football world. No fancy headlines. No heralded win-streak. No championship talk involving the Canes this year. Nothing will be handed to Miami in 2003. Every win will have to be earned. Every down is a building block toward a third straight title appearance. Complacency this year will equal a two loss season while focus, hunger and a renewed sense of determination can lead to a legitimate shot at reclaiming our National Championship.

A storm is brewing in Coral Gables. This year it's a quiet storm. Back to business like it was in 2001 and 1987. These boys have a point to prove and will do in on the field instead of in the headlines. They will do it with their actions as opposed to their mouths. The hunger has returned to Coral Gables and the only thing that will satisfy this appetite is a trip to New Orleans and a Sugar Bowl come January.

It all starts with a dominant, 60 minute performance in Shreveport. Silence the critics, Miami. Take the first step in the 13-step process that is reclaiming what is rightfully yours.

Miami 48, Louisiana Tech 17

Chris Bello is VP of Marketing for PlayerLine (www.playerline.com), a network-based, fantasy sports website. He has been a CanesTime.com columnist since 1995 and he now resides in San Diego, CA. Feel free to contact him at cbello@san.rr.com


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