I've been hesitant to write about Miami this fall aside from a few season previews. Three games are under this team's belt and we've seen several different traits and personalities. Saying there were some extreme highs and lows these past twelve quarters is an understatement. I've been carefully forming my opinions, but I don't think it is fair to judge this team's personality yet.
A season opener against Louisiana Tech added a little extra pressure – and drama – to the Brock Berlin story. Hometown hero returns to Shreveport for a nationally televised game after sitting on the bench for 21 months between starts? No. 7 was already under the microscope as a big name recruit and former Florida Gator that transferred to rival Miami. Now throw in replacing a 38-2, National Champion, Heisman Trophy finalist in Ken Dorsey and the pressure of stepping behind center at Quarterback U. Not a task for the weak. Still, Berlin survived his debut going 14 of 28 for 203 yards with 1 interception and 2 touchdowns. Had a few receivers held onto a few good looking passes, those stats would've been even more impressive.
A week later, Miami threw its first house party since last season's 56-45 season finale against No. 18 Virginia Tech. Memories of Dorsey, Willis McGahee and Larry Coker grooving on that makeshift stage while accepting a Fiesta Bowl bid felt like a million years ago. Saturday night under the lights and it was a familiar foe in the Orange Bowl. It had been almost two decades since the Florida Gators were in town – 18 years to be exact. A full house of 79,932 rowdy fans took in the memorable match up in person. Most of them to see a Miami-led Berlin team succeed – the rest to see him fail and his former teammates prevail. Again, weak minded quarterbacks get out while you still can.
With 6:10 left in the third quarter, Berlin took the field and was showered by a chorus of boos. That majority of that Hurricane crowd that was once behind Berlin had turned on him. Remember, this is Miami. You are only as good as your last touchdown pass. Lucky for UM faithful, Berlin was unfazed. With the weight of the OB on his shoulders he chipped away at the 33-10 deficit completion by completion. Eleven straight at one point – each one more meaningful than the last. In the final 21:10 of the contest, Berlin was 18 of 21 for 279 yards and a touchdown. Would've had two if receiver Kevin Beard could've stretched that torso an inch further, but it wouldn't matter. The Miami offense would come together and rally furiously to outscore Florida 28-0 en route to the 38-33 victory.
A week ago the opponent was East Carolina. There some much talk of the Pirates' 2-0 record against the Canes. A 31-6 win in year two of the probation era, 1996 – and a comeback victory in 1999 where Miami would blow a 20-3 halftime lead to an undermanned ECU. Final score, 27-23.
The media and the fans attempted to fabricate some hype for this second home game of the season – but the 42-point spread in favor of Miami told the real story. East Carolina brought the nation's worst defense into the Orange Bowl last weekend, yet Miami could only muster up 31 points on offense in a lackluster performance. The 38-3 final score was hardly indicative of the game itself. Post game, Hurricane players openly admitted not being fired up for the contest. Understandable after coming off the Florida game. Letdown games are part of football and we know the Canes are notorious for playing down to the level of the competition at times. Still, for a team that preached being hungry – famished – all off season after last year's Fiesta Bowl loss, a letdown in game three of the season is wrong and not a trait that championship teams possess.
Am I saying that the 2003 Canes aren't a championship team? No. I already stated that I feel it is too early to put any kind of label on this team yet. They got that first post-Fiesta game under their belt. They survived a thriller against an old rival in the comfort of their own stadium. They cruised through a rout against one of the nation's lesser teams without losing any superstars to injury. What haven't they done? Won a meaningful game on the road.
This Saturday they get that chance.
I'm not hyping Miami/Boston College 2003 as one for the ages, but come Saturday night this Hurricane team is in un-chartered waters. Wins at Alumni Stadium don't come easy. Ask the 2001 National Champions who needed a miracle play to survive and blow out of Chestnut Hill with an 18-7 victory. In 1999 it was a Kenny Kelly led Miami team that found themselves down 28-0 before a furious rally produced a 31-28 victory. Two years before that it took two overtimes for the Canes to get the 45-44 win. First year head coach Butch Davis' squad held on 17-14 in 1995. Miami has to look back to 1993 for their last convincing win at Boston College when they left on the right side of a 23-7 contest.
This Saturday's meeting will be the last conference match up for these long time foes as Miami is ACC bound in 2004. The Canes have taken the last 12 meetings in this series and the Eagles know this is their last shot and a big time upset. They know they blew a once in a lifetime opportunity two years ago. They also know their grind it out, ball control style of football worked against the Canes for three quarters last year. Going into the game's final 15 minutes, the Eagles found themselves down 17-6 before the Canes' defense took over and put the game out of reach. Miami score 21 unanswered in the 38-6 home victory.
How good is this Boston College team? Who really knows? They lost a close one to a decent Wake Forest team, handled a below average Penn State team in front of 100,000+ in Happy Valley and looked average against lowly Connecticut. Running back Derrick Knight is proving to be a force with 470 yards and 1 touchdown this season. Quarterback Quinton Porter has replaced the reliable Brian St. Pierre and brings a more mobile approach to the position. Still, Porter's role Saturday night will merely be to not make mistakes and to open it up enough so that the defense will have to give Knight some breathing room. He has also found a reliable receiver in tight end Sean Ryan.
On defense, it will be the same Tom O' Brien schemes with a handful of different players as only six starter return from last year's team. Confuse the inexperienced quarterback with some two-deep zones. Drop in and out of blitz packages with their back seven as they did to confuse Dorsey in 2001. Difference is the Eagles are sporting an extremely inexperienced secondary this time around this approach could backfire. Berlin has proven that he can utilize running back Frank Gore with short passes out of the backfield – most of the time – and he will need to do so again this Saturday night.
Gore has already stated that he has had issues holding onto the ball this season. Carrying a football to and from class this week is a noble gesture, but the Eagle defense will be zeroing in on this former freshman back who fumbled his only handoff at a key point of the 2001 contest. While BC boasts an undersized defensive line, they'll rotate players and grind it out and control the clock like they have against UM the past few seasons. Again, this approach only works so long and if the Hurricanes play their game, they will dominate the second half and wear the Eagles down.
Knight is the key if Boston College looks for another game of clock management against Miami. The Eagles sport an experienced offensive line this season, returning three starters. Second string back Horace Dodd will get a handful of carries, helping Knight keep fresh legs in the contest.
The intangible for the Canes this year comes on special teams. Miami showed Florida the electricity of freshman Devin Hester when he took the opening kickoff back for six. A drive later it was Sean Taylor with a 60+ yard return that set up a Miami field goal. Returning punts is the ever dangerous Roscoe Parrish. All three could single-handedly squash any BC plans of playing for field position.
Sprinkle in the standard drama that Miami/Boston College at Alumni Stadium brings and we are going to have a game this weekend. This is a young Miami team that hasn't been tested on the road yet. While Boston College is a far cry from playing at a Michigan or Southern Cal at this point of the season, it is definitely a growth opportunity for the 2003 Hurricanes. The Eagles are well coached and will be ready to play. The nighttime atmosphere will set the tone for this conference rivalry finale.
There is no reason to throw out the term "statement game" here. Hopefully these Canes know what is at hand. Not many outside of Coral Gables are sold on this young team yet. Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech are media picks to win the Big East and virtually no one sees Miami getting to the Sugar Bowl. The win over Louisiana Tech was regarded as sloppy – as were the first three quarters against Florida. The nation saw an under motivated Miami last weekend and penalties are again proving to be a problem for Coker's bunch. If Boston College is thinking upset, they are catching Miami at a somewhat vulnerable time. This is a talented team that is still searching for an identity and is yet to string together four quarters of football. That said, when the Canes are finally ready to turn it on – look out. They could be unstoppable.
Banged up since spring ball, this team is more than ready to come into its own. One by one key players are finding their way back to the field. Game by game Berlin is gaining the confidence he had as a 45-0 prep school superstar and shedding the perception that he'd never get out of Steve Spurrier's doghouse. Tight end Kellen Winslow is ready to bust through a double team for his breakout performance. Beard has proven to be a go to guy while youngster Ryan Moore is showing glimpses of past, big time Hurricane receivers. Gore is one bounce to the outside of breaking off 50+ yard runs like he did in 2001 and the offensive line is a almost injury-free and ready to make Art Kehoe proud.
The secondary is hitting as hard as ever and needs to avoid giving up the occasional big play before drawing comparisons to their 2002 performance. Jon Vilma and DJ Williams need Rocky McIntosh to get healthy so they can wreak havoc and become the best linebacking corp in the nation. On the d-line Big Daddy Wilfork needs to set the tone for the young bucks that are looking to him for guidance. The talent at end and tackle are frightening. Baraka Atkins, Bryan Pata, Orien Harris and Thomas Carroll are the Miami stars of tomorrow – but they are being called on to start performing today.
The sky isn't falling, but New Orleans reservations shouldn't be booked yet. The ol' "one at a time" cliché needs to be implemented here and now. This team will bring it together at some point this season. May be this weekend. Could be at Tallahassee in a few weeks. If not, then possibly when they travel to Blacksburg on November 1st. Regardless, it will happen. The question is can they continue to find ways to win without playing their best football? 28-point comebacks don't grow on trees. Tempt fate long enough and you'll eventually get burned.
The hunger that was spoken of all summer needs to surface this weekend. The Canes are being counted out by some. Backed into a corner. Miami against the world – just how they like it. A national TV audience will be watching this Saturday night. What better occasion to come into their own?
Miami 23 Boston College 17
Chris Bello is the VP of Marketing for the PlayerLine (http://www.playerline.com) -- a network-based, fantasy sports website. Born in Miami and a CanesTime.com columnist since 1995, he now resides in San Diego, CA. Feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org