Mountaineer Showdown

The season is already 1/3 over and Miami has found a way to pass all four challenges they've faced. A blowout here, a nail biter there and a few "business as usual" wins have made up the 2003 season. The Canes are 4-0 and ranked #2 in the nation, yet the skeptics are still making their presence felt.

There is some doubt surrounding this team who is yet to really click on the offensive side of the ball. The talent is there but the chemistry is still falling into place. Defensively, the Canes are aggressive and sound. Younger players are making an impact immediately while the veterans are holding their own as expected.

Still, Miami is finding ways to win and has delivered in every appearance of 2003. Same can't be said for an Oregon, Michigan, Southern Cal or Auburn where championship dreams were erased in the blink of an eye. The parity in college football this season is as strong as ever. The ol' saying "on any given Saturday" applies more this season than ever. Top ten teams are getting picked off left and right. Nobody is safe in the year of the underdog. The saying "one at a time" has to be the mantra and mindset of this season's championship team. Slip up or one game and your season is over.

Miami knows this – but do they fully comprehend it? Watching the first 2 ½ quarters of the Florida game last month, one might say ‘no'. Seeing the passion they exuded in the game's final 20 minutes was a completely different story. A tale of two teams and the season was saved – for now.

The September 20th contest at Boston College was an impressive. A 33-14 win at Chestnut Hill can never be taken for granted. Still, the offensive woes continued. Quarterback Brock Berlin was accurate at times. Other occasions he was way off. At tailback, Frank Gore was consistent, but still is yet to explode and take over a game like Willis McGahee did on so many occasions in 2002. Kellen Winslow II is no longer a well kept secret. He provided a few highlight catches as always, but isn't getting the looks he got last season. Kevin Beard, Jason Geathers, Ryan Moore and Roscoe Parrish are still battling it out – each hoping to be this season's ‘go to' receiver. The offensive line? Still a work in progress and one that when complete, will nullify all the aforementioned offensive issues.

Miami jumped on Boston College immediately when Parrish retuned a punt 92 yards for a touchdown in the first two minutes of the game. A quarter later it was safety Sean Taylor making his presence felt as he rumbled 67 yards to the end zone on an interception return. Key plays such as these that will define the Hurricanes' 2003 campaign.

Special teams and defense have helped set the tone on so many occasions this season. Miami will have to continue relying on these two areas as the offense continues to gel. Everyone is fully aware there is a game Thursday evening in the Orange Bowl, but all thoughts are on Tallahassee on October 11th. Remember all that "one at a time" talk earlier? That applies to the players and coaches. Fans are allowed to talk Miami vs. Florida State 365 days a year.

But back to this Thursday night's match up, West Virginia. The Mountaineers (1-3) head to the Orange Bowl for a final Big East showdown against the Canes. Still, not too much fanfare surrounding this event. WVU's slow start this season has taken some of the luster off of this final meeting. A 24-17 loss in the season opener against Wisconsin seemed to break this team. Their lone win was a blowout of an 0-5 East Carolina team. A narrow loss to Cincinnati and a beating at the hands of Maryland seem to have this Mountaineer team demoralized.

Hard to expect all that much out of a team that returned only five starters on offense. The biggest departure was running back Avon Coburne, who torched the Miami defense for 175 yards and a touchdown. While the Canes took down the Mountaineers, 40-23 – the game proved to be closer than the final score. Quarterback Rasheed Marshall proved to be a handful throwing for 60 yards, but scrambling for 93 yards and a touchdown in the losing effort.

Marshall returns to the Orange Bowl on Thursday but hardly has the same supporting cast. Besides the loss of Cobourne, WVU also lost four wide receivers and 60% of their offensive line. Senior running back Quincy Wilson is the new Mountaineer taking handoffs, but is a definite drop off from Cobourne. Aside from the route of lowly East Carolina, Wilson is yet to crack the 100 yard marker. In two of this year's four games, he was Marshall's favorite receiving target – which shows the lack of depth at receiver. There is some depth at running back with JUCO transfer Kay-Jay Harris, Jason Colson and Bryan Wright – but up until now, Wilson is getting the chance to prove himself, getting the majority of the carries.

Hard to believe, but the off season was even harder on the defense as only four of last year's starters return. An entire defensive line has been replaced and looked barely average the first 1/3 of this season. Grant Wiley provides some stability and leadership at linebacker, but can't carry this entire defense on his back. Brian King and Lance Frazier return at safety and cornerback, respectively - but is that a good thing? West Virginia's secondary was shredded by Miami's Ken Dorsey last season to the tune of 422 yards and two touchdowns.

While the Rich Rodriguez Project has his Mountaineers on the right track, this third year head coach has his work cut out for him in 2003. Especially Thursday night in the Orange Bowl.

A Miami win is more than expected against West Virginia. That's not being cocky – it's just the truth. That being said, the question remains how will the Canes handle this Thursday night tune up before next Saturday's showdown in Tallahassee? Four games into the season, the Canes look good – not great. The talent is there, but the team has stumbled at times. The amount of penalties has been atrocious and shows a lack of concentration, discipline and restraint at times. It hasn't proven to be a big deal as of yet, but as we saw last season a yellow hanky hitting the turf can change a game, a season and college football history.

Miami knows it can never take a hard working, blue collared West Virginia squad lightly. Just look a few weeks back at what a squad from Marshall, West Virginia did in Manhattan, Kansas – upsetting the #6 Wildcats. The Mountaineers will play hard, but their abilities will only carry them so far against this talented Hurricanes team. The question remains, how hard will Miami play? Post game will there be comments of how they weren't up for this game like East Carolina a few weeks back? Are they already thinking Tallahassee and #5 Florida State like the rest of the fans are?

What about on the field? Is this the first time a healthy offensive line will come together providing Gore and Berlin that extra second or so they need to work their magic? Berlin had his breakout game against Florida, but has been sporadic ever since. Gore still looks like he is a step away from being the player he was in 2001 – albeit he showed his stuff in second string duty behind one of the greatest Miami offensive lines in history.

I will be watching tonight's game with an extremely critical – and optimistic - eye. It has been twelve days since the Canes suited up and squared off against an opponent. Almost three weeks since playing in front of a home crowd. Injuries have had ample time to heal. Coaches have had weeks to drive their message home on penalties and to get this team prepared for this Second Act of the 2003 season. A five game stretch which has the Canes facing Florida State, Virginia Tech and Tennessee – two of which are on the road.

Louisiana Tech, Florida, East Carolina and Boston College were a great beginning to 2003. Miami avoided pitfalls and letdowns. Ranked No. 2 in the nation and 4-0 heading into week seven of this college football season, the Canes are right where they need to be. No disrespect to West Virginia, but tonight's game plan should remain vanilla enough to win and to not tip Florida State off to next week's game plan. Stay injury-free, get out with a win, play hungry, gel as an offensive unit and get busy preparing for the Seminoles.

Miami 41 West Virginia 10

Chris Bello is VP of Marketing for PlayerLine – http://www.playerline.com – a global, fantasy sports website. Born in Miami and a CanesTime.com columnist since 1995, he resides in San Diego, CA. Feel free to contact him at chris.bello@playerline.com


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