2003 Season Review - Part I

Seems like only yesterday Cane players, coaches and enthusiasts were uttering the mantra "leave no doubt" in regards to this upcoming season. There was bitterness stemming from a controversial Fiesta Bowl ending and the only remedy was the official kickoff to the 2003 college football season.

Four months later it's all in the past. 11-2, #5 in the nation and 2004 Orange Bowl Champions are the end result. In the grand scheme of things, a success. The type of season that most universities would dream of. In Miami - one play short of winding up in the Sugar Bowl. As Oklahoma and Louisiana State went head to head for the BCS title, Hurricane Nation will ponder the game that never was. A stellar senior class and top ranked defense watched from home as a couple of one-loss teams slugged it out and LSU won the National Championship. A game Miami could've been in. A game Miami's defense could've won.

Make no mistake, this was not your 2001 National Champion Miami Hurricanes. This 2003 team was a much different bunch than the veteran and battle tested 12-0 squad a few seasons back. The 2001 Canes dominated from the get go and benefited from solid leadership on both sides of the ball. Combine that with a little fate and good fortune and you have a championship bound team. They stung from the 2000 BCS snub and vowed nothing less than an undefeated season and National Championship in 2001. Mission accomplished.

Entering the 2003 season, there was a snub of a different kind to overcome. The only thing worse than being denied a shot at a championship is having one stolen. Miami experienced both feats within a three year span. Following the lead of the 2001 squad – or even the 1987 Hurricanes who ended an undefeated regular season with a loss to a Big Ten foe in the Fiesta – the 2003 set their sites on New Orleans and worked towards recapturing their crown.

The season kicked off with a Thursday evening road trip to Shreveport, Louisiana for a warm up game against Louisiana Tech. With Florida, Florida State, Virginia Tech, Tennessee and Pittsburgh all looming on the schedule, Miami experienced the equivalent of an NFL type warm up game with the Bulldogs. A great opportunity to break in the new "big three."

Gone were Heisman trophy finalists quarterback Ken Dorsey and running back Willis McGahee. Junior wide receiver Andre Johnson also decided to take his skills to the next level, bypassing his senior season at Miami. At the helm in 2003 – quarterback Brock Berlin, running back Frank Gore and go to receiver Ryan Moore. A talented, yet unproven bunch playing behind a reshuffled offensive line but still having some veteran leadership in tight end Kellen Winslow Jr., receivers Kevin Beard and Jason Geathers and lineman Chris Myers, Carlos Joseph and Vernon Carey.

On paper, this bunch was capable of creating their own legacy but would they have the on field chemistry and success as their predecessors?

The 48-9 win over Louisiana Tech provided few answers outside of another solid defensive outing for Miami. While Berlin connected early with Moore for a 24-yard touchdown pass, there were few other offensive highlights this evening – a sign of things to come. Still, a dominating evening by special teams and the Miami defense as Antrell Rolle returned a punt 66 yards for a touchdown and a 30 yard interception for another. DJ Williams took a fumble 78 yards to the house, as well. Sean Taylor recorded his first interception of the year on the opening drive and the Canes absolutely shut down quarterback Luke McCown, holding him without a touchdown and forcing two picks.

Berlin ended the day 14 of 28 for 203 yards, 2 touchdowns and an interception in his Shreveport homecoming. Hardly a dominating performance against an inferior opponent – but in his defense, it was the first time Berlin saw the field in 20 months. Still, his "good but not great" performance set the stage for an interesting match up against the rival Florida Gators the following weekend in the Orange Bowl.

Miami versus Florida is old school to the fullest. A rivalry that begun in 1938 and was officially halted in 1987, it would be the Gators first trip to the Orange Bowl in 16 seasons.

Berlin was tested in the return trip to his hometown – a place where he went 45-0 as the starting quarterback at Evangel High School. Nine days later he faced the Florida Gators – his original collegiate choice. Not the easiest way to start one's career at Quarterback U, but that's just the way it goes at Miami. It is a whole different ballgame at The U. Not an environment for the weak minded or easily broken spirit.

Down 33-10 with 6:10 remaining in the third quarter, Miami faithful were ready to break something. Berlin's two interceptions and fumble had created a hole that seemed insurmountable. But then "it" happened – the now famous "Florida Fizzle." Afraid of prosperity and with no clue how to hang onto a lead, the Gator meltdown began and Hurricane Nation awoke. Over the next twenty plus minutes of football, Miami outscored Florida 28-0 – shutting down the Gators' offense on every occasion. Berlin played like the quarterback everyone dreamed he could be as Gore amassed 127 yards and 2 touchdowns in the thrilling win. 2-0 and a cakewalk the following week against East Carolina, Miami's Sugar Bowl dreams appeared to have some validity.

The 38-3 win over the Purple Pirates was a lethargic effort. Player quotes of being uninspired to play leaked out after the game.

"I could have had way more yards than I did," Gore said. "I just never really got into the game. I couldn't get into a groove. I made a couple of good runs, but I think some of them should have been touchdowns. I just wasn't really hyped tonight."

While it may have been hard to get jacked up for East Carolina a week after the Florida Fizzle – it was vintage Miami, playing down to the level of their competition. The lead was 17-3 going into the final quarter before the Canes pulled away while the offense sputtered most of the day. The final points were scored in garbage time by back up players and made the game look like more of a blowout than it was. With a road trip to Chestnut Hill the following week, things again looked good – not great – going into a nighttime match up with BC.

Miami has owned Boston College since Hail Flutie in 1984 winning 13 straight. Still, Alumni Stadium always seems to give the Canes fits. Combined margin of victory the last four Orange Bowl meetings? 113 points. Combined margin of victory the past four games in Alumni Stadium? 18 points. With an unproven quarterback and a hostile crowd, it would again be on specials teams and defense to carry the Canes.

Less than two minutes into the contest, Roscoe Parrish broke the game wide open with a 92-yard punt return for a touchdown. In the second quarter, Sean Taylor took a poorly thrown Paul Peterson pass 67 yards to the house. A Miami safety provided 2 more points and in the end it was 16 points thanks to the Hurricanes' special teams and defense. Offensively it was another sub par outing for Brock Berlin with 151 yards, 0 touchdowns and 1 interception though Gore and Payton combined for 130 yards and 2 touchdowns.

The 33-14 win was nowhere near as close as the final score, but it was rather apparent that balance on both sides of the ball was not the make up of the 2003 Miami Hurricanes. Defense, defense and more defense was the recipe for success. Berlin's rally against Florida was looking more and more like a fluke as the season progressed and every week was prematurely tabbed as his "breakout game."

Sitting pretty at 4-0, Miami would prepare for a Thursday night match up against a then 1-3 West Virginia before heading to Tallahassee the following weekend for the annual Florida State meeting. A little case of looking ahead to next week? As sure as the Noles missing a game winning kick – yes. The Canes had won five straight against the Mountaineers. No need to panic now.

In the matter of a few hours, Miami lost Frank Gore for the season with a torn ACL, endured a two interception performance by Brock Berlin, gave up the 33-yard screen pass of the year that resulted in a go ahead touchdown with 120 seconds remaining, relied on a Kellen Winslow 4th & 13 miracle grab on the final drive and needed five Jon Peattie field goals – including a game winner with :11 remaining – for a thrilling 22-20 Miami win.

Could there be any worse scenario than limping into Tallahassee for a showdown with Florida State? Both teams were undefeated and sporting top five rankings for the first time since 1993 – and just like that time, the Canes were riding a three game win streak over the Noles.

In a rain soaked affair, the game plan shifted towards a grind-it-out mindset for Miami. Rely on back up running back Jarrett Payton and keep Brock Berlin from giving the game away with turnovers. Payton finished the day with 112 all purpose yards and a touchdown. Berlin coughed up three interceptions and a touchdown on 15 attempts. Both teams combined for 10 turnovers but Miami made the most of their opportunities. Hurricane Taylor picked off two Chris Rix passes – taking one 50 yards for a touchdown before halftime, giving Miami a 19-0 advantage.

In the end, it was the Miami defense… again. Quarterback play was sub par on both sides and it would take more than running the ball to win out between these two similar teams. The Hurricanes capitalized on mistakes in a way the Seminoles never do. They seized it and blew out of Tallahassee with a 22-14 victory and a 5-0 ranking.

With a fourth straight win against Florida State, Hurricane Nation was feeling pretty good at 6-0 and #2 in the nation. A major hurdle had been cleared and the Canes were at the halfway point of the 2003 season. Miami still proved to be vulnerable on offense as quarterback woes and a downgraded rushing attack were still an issue, but the defense proved to have the firepower to take this team to New Orleans.

A snoozer ensued the following week against Temple in the form of a 52-14 beating. Freshman Tyrone Moss and "starter by default" Jarrett Payton carried the load with 250 yards and 3 touchdowns while Berlin did what he should against a Temple-like opponent with 187 yards, 2 touchdowns – and the magic number – 0 interceptions. The defense was vintage Miami, holding the Temple passing attack to 21 yards on 14 attempts, two touchdowns and 150 yards by five different rushers – 69 coming on one play in the second quarter. The only flaw on a near perfect outing…

Check back tomorrow for Part II of the "2003 Season Review".

Born and raised in Miami, FL and a CanesTime.com columnist since 1995, Chris Bello now resides in San Diego, CA. Feel free to send your comments or to contact him at cbello@san.rr.com

2003 Season Review - Part II

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