Final Big East Roll Call

It's put up or shut up time, Miami. The next sixty minutes of football determine the true heart and character of this team. It's that simple. Roll into Pittsburgh, emerge victorious and you can save face in 2003. Lose, and it's time to pack those bags for another Christmas in Phoenix – and this time it ain't no Fiesta, boys.

Instead, a berth in the throwaway Insight.com Bowl against a mid tier Pac 10 team. A far cry from those summertime Sugar Bowl dreams, huh?

Never before has a 9-2 Miami team been faced with such a pivotal season ending game. For that matter, few college football programs can comprehend the weight that is on Miami's shoulders this weekend.

Back to back title game appearances and undefeated regular seasons, 2001 National Champions, a 44-4 record this decade, 13 NFL first round draft picks the past three seasons and three straight Big East Championships are the real deal. More accolades and success in three years than most programs see in their entire history. To call Miami dominant is an understatement.

If you're a Miami enthusiast, the past three years have been an amazing ride. Hurricane haters watched with envy all decade and for the first time feel there is hope. A notion that the Miami Dynasty is in trouble and that it's downhill – for a while, at least.

That's what happens when you are the best. Numero uno. King of the hill. Any sense of struggle is perceived as the end. Two loss seasons are an absolute dream for some programs. For Miami, it is a down year and the ultimate goal wasn't achieved.

Take all of the recent success and media attention. Now throw in a little change of conference controversy and the November 29th match up with Pittsburgh just became that much more interesting. Miami's Big East finale couldn't be bigger. The departing Hurricanes take on the Panthers – a team first in line to assume the role of Big East power when Miami departs. The winner? A BCS bowl game berth (would be a fourth straight for the Canes) while the loser heads to a meaningless lower tier bowl. The stage is set for an epic battle.

But truly not the epic battle the 2003 Hurricanes set their sites on – a third straight National Championship berth. How will Miami respond to being in this unfamiliar position? Will it fold like the 1993 Hurricanes a decade ago? A team that underachieved its way to a 9-3 season and was skunked 29-0 by Arizona in the 1994 Fiesta Bowl because they flat out quit.

Quitting is rarely associated with Miami Football. Resiliency. Determination. Heart. Talent. Winning. Dominating. Anything less isn't acceptable. There is a standard of excellence at The U.

That said, there have been times this year that the 2003 team has quit. Operated at half speed. Wrestled with self doubt. Given up. Lost faith in teammates. Imploded at crucial game moments. All a far cry from last off season's claim of being "more than hungry… we're famished" when asked about this season. The opposite mindset of those players in August that claimed they were out to "take back their title."

The Canes were tagged between the eyes at Virginia Tech. No two ways about it. Sure, there were a handful of those "what if" plays. What if Kevin Everett catches the sure touchdown on the fake field goal? What if Brock Berlin throws a ball out of bounds or takes the sack as opposed to two game changing interceptions? Regardless, it was Tech's night and they made Miami pay. Good for them. And credit to Frank Beamer for having his kids ready to play their game of the year a week after getting spanked on national television by West Virginia.

Judgment Day came for the Canes the following weekend when the Volunteers traveled south. Miami had a chance to make Tennessee their whipping post. Take out the frustration caused by the first regular season loss since September 2000. Prove that it was a blip in the radar and make a statement against UT.

That statement? An ill prepared team and an offense that played with fear in their eyes.

The Miami coaching staff failed in the locker room, on the practice field and in team meetings the week after Virginia Tech. The Hurricanes, as a unit, were not over the previous loss and were clearly not prepared for the Volunteers.

The 10-6 loss proved to be Miami's lowest scoring home game since a 38-3 loss against Florida State in 1984. Again, unacceptable for a group with this type of talent and recent track record. While the Miami defense absolutely kept the Tennessee offense in check, Miami's offense remained conservative and inept. The second consecutive loss was bad enough - but the late game interception and muffed punt recovery are unforgivable. Miami had zero business losing to Tennessee. Period.

The 2003 Hurricanes have been playing with a hangover since that Virginia Tech loss and the Tennessee game was adding insult to injury. The staff never got these kids over Loss #1 and a downward spiral ensued. Loss #2.. A quarterback controversy. Game time mental errors. Tempers flaring. Players benched. Larry Coker and his bunch flinched in the largest moment of their collective careers. This team is foreign to losing – as is the coaching staff. Winning became addictive and no one is responding to losing the same way. It's apparent this coaching staff is yet to find the answer.

Miami returned to familiar winning ways against in a lackluster win over Syracuse and a healthy pushing around of Rutgers. In the final half against the Scarlet Knights, the Canes seemed to have taken one step closer to finding their rhythm. A 28-point third quarter aided by solid defense and aggressive special teams also had Berlin tossing two touchdowns – his first since the third quarter against Temple four games back.

Has Miami turned the corner to the point where they can beat Pittsburgh? All depends which group of Canes heads north this weekend. The crew that bonded together and rolled into Tallahassee with Frank Gore on crutches, thumping the favored Seminoles in Doak Campbell? Or the group that self destructed when Virginia Tech was getting the better of them? No need for motivational speeches this week. Or any rah-rah talk. If this team doesn't understand what's on the line there are bigger issues in Miami than a three loss season.

It's time to show some Miami pride and make a statement this weekend. Many are already calling for and expecting a Hurricane loss. Prove them wrong. Leave the Big East on top. Win that 30th of the past 31 conference games. Stretch the winning streak over Pittsburgh to six consecutive years. Piss off the college football world, earn an Orange Bowl berth and hit for the bowl cycle with berths in the Sugar, Rose, Fiesta and Orange the past four seasons. Word is the Canes could earn a rematch against the hated Ohio State Buckeyes in sunny South Florida on January 1st, 2004. Again, if all that doesn't have this team jacked up this weekend – nothing would.

It's impossible to play for the National Championship every season – that is understood. While an admirable aspiration, sometimes second best will be the result. If first prize was the 2004 Sugar Bowl, what better second place scenario could the Canes ask for? A conference title in their Big East swan song, an Orange Bowl berth in their own backyard and another crack at a Buckeye team that took something from the Canes in their last meeting.

There is only one Miami that has any business showing up this weekend – the all business Hurricanes.

- The resilient bunch that brought Florida to its knees with a furious unanswered 28-point rally and win.

- The prepared team that strolled into a night game in Alumni Stadium – the home of many nail biters for Canes fans – and stuck it to Boston College in a dominant win.

- The never say die Canes that survived a late West Virginia score, a miraculous 4th and 13 grab by Kellen Winslow and a fifth Jon Peattie field goal to come back and stun the Mountaineers.

- Or everyone's favorite – the backed-into-a-corner Canes. The counted out, disrespected, insulted group that bonded together, rallied around their running backs - the injured Frank Gore and first time starter Jarrett Payton – and stuck it to Florida State for the entire college football world to see. Pride kicked in and that team refused to lose. Sean Taylor led the way – and everyone contributed. Everyone believed. Everyone delivered. Everyone shared in a fourth straight year of dominance over the Seminoles.

How do you get back to "that" place, 2003 Miami players and coaches? What has to be done to recapture the fire displayed earlier this season? Wins over Florida, Boston College, West Virginia and Florida State were all meaningful – but this season's biggest moment comes this weekend. One more win equals a successful season, an Orange Bowl berth and stability going into 2004. The ship will have been righted and this season's losses can be chalked up as flukes or games where it just wasn't Miami's night.

A loss? Heartbreaking and not a fitting departure for true Hurricanes like Jon Vilma, D.J. Williams, Maurice Sikes, Kevin Beard, Jason Geathers and Vernon Carey. Not to mention underclassmen that will most likely never strap on that "U" emblazoned helmet again after the bowl game – Kellen Winslow, Sean Taylor, Vince Wilfork and possibly Antrel Rolle.

No, these Canes deserve better – and dammit, they know better. All are disciples of recent Hurricane leaders like Ed Reed, Ken Dorsey, Santana Moss, Clinton Portis, Jeremy Shockey, Dan Morgan, Joaquin Gonzalez – the list is endless. These 2003 upperclassmen understand the price that is placed on winning at The U. They are a big part of the recent success and witnessed first hand the three most dominant years modern day college football has seen. The question they must ask themselves is are they willing to carry that dominant tradition on, passing the work ethic and mindset down to the underclassmen – or are they content with an Insight.com Bowl berth and leaving the program on a sour note as they head to the NFL? Sixty minutes is about to decide all this, gentlemen.

The 2003 Miami Hurricanes are not going to be defined as the team that rallied back against the Florida Gators – though it provided amazing memories and bragging rights over a hated rival.

Few will recall the comeback against West Virginia when this season is mentioned.

The victory over Florida State will be remembered as a rain soaked afternoon when Miami reintroduced their rival to the historic orange pants and yet another beating. Still, it won't define the 2003 season. Just another win in the rivalry.

Even the losses against Virginia Tech and Tennessee can be ignored if Miami takes care of business at Pittsburgh. Win out, go a respectable 10-2 on the regular season and take out any hard feelings on Ohio State if given the opportunity.

That is how a championship minded bunch who hit a bump in the road would respond!

Blow out of the Big East with a bang – not a season ending thud. Remind this conference what they are losing in true Miami fashion. Take that fourth consecutive title and coveted BCS bowl berth and run while sending a message to the ACC that a big time player is headed to town and there will be a changing of the guard in 2004.

This weekend's storyline ‘pitts' an explosive Panthers offense, led by Heisman worthy receiver Larry Fitzgerald - against a stingy Hurricanes defense with a top notch secondary and the nation's best linebacking corps. On the other side, a sluggish Miami offense looks to come alive against a Pittsburgh defense that has struggled with the run and gives up an average of almost 24 points a game. Mix in a recent hot streak for Hurricane special teams and you've got yourself a ballgame where any play could be season defining. But will it be Miami's ballgame?

Depends solely on the attitude. If this team is ready to take that "enough is enough" already, approach – look out. We could see vintage Hurricane Football if the coaching staff has these kids mentally prepared. At the same time, the four week old hangover could continue and this 2003 team would end up closely resembling that underachieving squad of 1993. As stated earlier, sixty minutes will tell all.

The world is witnessing the finest line between success and mediocrity a Miami Hurricanes team has walked in a long while. One has to believe something was gained after sustaining two unexpected losses in the past month. The correct mindset has to finally be in place. Pride has to have kicked in by now. There has to be a sense of urgency in the Coral Gables air. Few times will a team have such a clear cut path in determining their own fate. There will be no huddling around the television for Miami fans, players or coaches this weekend – praying for upsets or a chain reaction of events. Win and you're in. Case closed. Get it done Saturday and get ready for an Ohio State rematch in the Orange Bowl. Make it 11-2, pat yourselves on the back for a season well played and achieve more in 2004.

Miami 30, Pittsburgh 20

Chris Bello handles Marketing and PR for PlayerLine Corporation (http://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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