Two Losses Too Many

It wasn't supposed to be like this. 7-2 wasn't an option for these Canes at this point of the season. All off season the talk was of "getting back the title" and not letting a bogus penalty determine the outcome of a game. Fans expected a season similar to 1987 or 2001, where a title opportunity slipped away the previous season – causing a hungry group of Canes to take the field, dominate, go undefeated and win the National Championship.

In a matter of eight days, Miami's Sugar Bowl dreams were ruined. Another loss and the Canes can kiss away any shot at a conference championship and BCS bowl game. This year's seniors could conceivably go from Sugar, Rose and Fiesta berths the past three seasons, to a throwaway bowl this year if this ship isn't righted immediately.

There is a mindset at Miami – you play for the National Championship every season. Period. It is not a pipe dream; it is a reality. Hurricanes don't aim to win their conference – that is a given. Beyond that, they truly expect to go undefeated and wind up in the title game. They achieved that goal the past two seasons and fell one step short after being snubbed in 2000. 46-2 in their previous 48 games going into this year's Virginia Tech game is a pretty good indication of this team's focus and drive for success.

Miami went from losing two games in a 39 month span, to two losses in eight days. The first time back to back losses – and a home loss – had been experienced since September 1999. Cane players, coaches and fans are experiencing a ‘bizarro world' they never anticipated. Still, they must adjust and reprioritize. Now is not the time for the "we only play for championships" attitude of Hurricanes past. A heartless, 9-2 Miami team carried that attitude into the 1994 Fiesta Bowl and was embarrassed 29-0 by Arizona, ending the season with a thud. This current coaching staff must get this team refocused on the goal of winning out and getting a major bowl bid.

Losing is difficult enough – but it is the way Miami lost their last two games that is almost incomprehensible. While the defense is playing lights out, championship caliber football – the offense is not holding up its end of the bargain. Brock Berlin has not regained that magical touch he had at Evangel High School while posting a 45-0 record as starting quarterback. The talent is obviously there, but his confidence was shattered at Florida when benched in favor of the gutty Rex Grossman. Cane fans hoped the transfer to Miami would be the shot in the arm Berlin needed. Nine games into the 2003 season it's painfully obvious that more than a change of venue would be a required.

A lack of depth and big time rushers at running back, youth at the receiver position and a constantly reshuffled offensive line are partly to blame – but much of that blame falls solely on Berlin's shoulders.

Successful collegiate quarterbacks cannot turn the ball over 17 times in the span of nine games. It is almost incomprehensible and a sure recipe for disaster. Locking onto the primary target, forcing passes, coughing up 14 interceptions and 3 fumbles, overthrowing or under throwing receivers and not knowing when to take a sack are sure signs that Berlin is not the next great passer at Quarterback U. His final interception against Tennessee cost Miami the game. Period. With 2nd and goal from the nine yard line, there is no reason to toss up a prayer. Take the sack and leave your team two more shots at the end zone and a potential 13-10 victory. A rookie mistake by a quarterback in his junior season.

While Berlin is rattled and headed to the bench in favor of Derrick Crudup when Syracuse comes calling this weekend, he is no quitter. He will work to get his starting job back and will not throw in the towel on this team or his career. He is too good for that – but the question remains is he good enough to run the University of Miami offense and lead the Canes to a title game berth? Right now that answer is no.

Crudup will experience his first start this season when the Orangemen come to town. A back up his entire career at Miami, he takes over the role of quarterback by default – much like Jarrett Payton taking over for the injured Frank Gore. Cane fans are curious to see what kind of emotions this stirs up in Crudup. Will he feel the pressure of taking over a 7-2 team with expectations of winning the next three games, securing the Big East championship and heading to a BCS bowl game? Or will he come out, guns blazing – ready to prove the coaches made a mistake when they snubbed him for Berlin? We'll find out this Saturday.

The Hurricanes have outscored the Orangemen 134-7 in the past three meetings. This is a must win game for Miami and Syracuse is an extremely beatable opponent. A Miami loss on Saturday and the wheels completely fall off for this team. The Canes need to get their confidence back with a big win. Learn from the past two losses then let them go. Focus solely on the next three games and winning out. Get hungry and recapture that feeling of success.

Now is the time for Miami to come together as a team. There has been some internal finger pointing, lashing out at the media and calling out ‘so called' fans that are not being supportive of this team right now. Those distractions will be a cancer to this team if they do not stop immediately and again, this is where the coaching staff must intervene and correct the attitudes of these young men.

Credit Larry Coker for pulling Berlin in favor of Crudup. While some will say it should've been done last week – or as early as September – he acknowledged the problem and dealt with it. Crudup deserves a shot to run this offense without looking over his shoulder or listening for Berlin's footsteps. Hopefully that is what he will get this weekend.

Coker was also correct in benching superstar Kellen Winslow II this weekend. While K2's lashing out at the media has been dramatically overblown, he needs a quick ‘time out' to clear his head and prepare for the rest of the season. Winslow loves this game and there is nowhere Coker could've gotten to him more than to sit him down and take away what he loves most. Conversely, it is a great opportunity for Kevin Everett to get the bitter taste of the Virginia Tech sure touchdown drop out of his head.

Joining both Berlin and Winslow on the bench will be starting center Joel Rodriguez – another victim of mental errors. A few holding penalties at crucial moments of recent games forced Coker to bench Rodriguez – another correct decision on the part of this coaching staff.

A message is being sent by this staff that mental mistakes will not be tolerated. A 7-2 record is not the end of the world, but the screw ups that factored into the losses are unforgivable. This is not Miami circa 2000-2002. The offense isn't going to put up 40+ points and negate over 100 yards in penalties. There just isn't enough firepower in 2003. Every penalty has proved to be a dagger in this team's heart the past two weekends. Coker and staff will put up with it no more. Time to show the starters that no position is safe if you become a liability to the team. That was proven when Winslow – the team's leading receiver with 51 receptions for 527 yards and a touchdown – was told to have a seat this Saturday. No Hurricane is bigger than this team or the program – and right now this program needs a win.

The Orangemen bring a 5-3 record to the Orange Bowl this weekend and will not be intimidated. Why should they be? They have beaten Miami on this turf before (1997) and stuck it to the Canes 66-13 in the Carrier Dome the following season. Miami is on a two game losing streak and if you want to exact revenge on the Canes, what better time than now as they have proven to be mortal?

Running back Walter Reyes leads the Orangemen's ground game with 966 yards and 14 touchdowns this season. A 241 yard, 4 touchdown outing against Central Florida in September was the highlight of his season, but he has been unable to crack the 100+ yard mark the past four games.

R.J. Anderson returns at quarterback and is no longer playing musical chairs with the graduated Troy Nunes. Last year's top two targets Jamel Riddle and David Tyree are also gone; leaving Johnnie Morant is Anderson's top receiver in 2003. The offensive line remains virtually untouched from last season.

Defensively ‘Cuse returns an experienced defensive line in Louis Gachelin, Christian Ferrara and Josh Thomas. Sophomore James Wyche will line up at right end.

Middle linebacker Rich Scanlon is a fifth-year senior, replacing the departed Clifton Smith. Sophomore Kellen Pruitt takes over the weak side while redshirt freshman Kelvin Smith will play the strong side.

Almost an entirely new secondary is suiting up for the Orangemen in 2003 – with the exception of sophomore corner Steve Gregory. The 5'9" Thomas Witfield will line up opposite Gregory and could be a match up for Crudup to exploit if he finds his niche this weekend. Safety Diamond Ferri is a converted running back and his counterpart Anthony Smith is equally as inexperienced.

The Orangemen fell to the Hurricanes 49-7 last season in the Carrier Dome while giving up 134 yards on the ground and 2 touchdowns to Willis McGahee – who blew the game open early with a 61 yard run that put Miami up 7-0. Ken Dorsey picked apart the secondary for 345 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions while two late scores came on a fake field goal pass from Freddie Capshaw to Sean Taylor and a Maurice Sikes interception returned 53 yards for the score.

With an offense nowhere near as potent as the 2002 Hurricanes and a Syracuse team that believes a win over Miami is possible – one must wonder what's in store for this weekend? Can Crudup wake this offense from its slumber? Will the Hurricane defense shut down Reyes, who had 110 yards and a touchdown in 2002? Can the Miami defense again rise to the challenge – even with all the recent injuries of impact players?

Still, the ultimate question remains - can Miami put the past eight quarters of football out of their minds and regain their winning ways? They have to. A loss this weekend will not be tolerated. Eliminate brain-dead mistakes, regain composure, quit worrying about the fan support – or lack thereof – and show some pride and heart this weekend. Play for the ‘U' on your helmets and the program – not the people in the stands.

The entire college football world is pointing its collective finger at Miami and is doubled over in laughter. They have waited three full seasons to see the Hurricanes fall from grace and they are eating it up with a spoon. Smug looks take over the faces of all ESPN talking heads when discussing Miami's recent losses. They see a decline coming. They hope and feel this is the start of a new trend and changing of the college football guard. A few losses, issues at quarterback and the lashing out of a star player has everyone ready to slap that "Thug U" tag back on Miami.

The only way to silence the critics? Play Miami Football this weekend. Get back to basics. Dominate on defense, hit hard, provide big plays on offense and dominate the opponent. A BCS bowl is within reach. Three wins and we are on our way. Take out the frustration on Syracuse and get the ‘W'. There is no other option.

Miami 26, Syracuse 13

Chris Bello is the VP of Marketing for the PlayerLine (www.playerline.com) - a global fantasy sports website. He has been a CanesTime.com columnist since 1995 and resides in San Diego, CA. Feel free to contact him at chris.bello@playerline.com


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