In the end it was Virginia Tech 31, Miami 7. A pretty convincing beat down that was 100% the fault of Hurricane mistakes and a lack of offensive firepower. As the Hokies went on to lose five of their final six games in 2003, the loss at Lane Stadium is that much more difficult for Hurricane faithful. Still, a one loss season isn't detrimental. Oklahoma was the only undefeated team in the land so a one loss team would definitely be Sugar Bowl bound. With Tennessee up next, Miami would make them pay in an Orange Bowl home game and get back on track for a title game berth, right?
As we all know, a large percentage of college football is coaching and the other is pure physical play, lucky breaks and the football gods. In regards to the coaching aspect, Miami's leaders did not get the job done a week after Miami's first regular season loss since September 2000.
There is absolutely NO reason the Hurricanes should've lost to the Volunteers. This game was by far the low point of Miami's season. A 31-7 beating in Blacksburg? Chalk it up to the stars being aligned - unlike Tech fans' teeth - and it merely being "their night". They got the lucky bounces and Miami continuously shot themselves in the foot. 7-1 and time to press on as a trip to New Orleans was still in the cards. Not any more. Losing 10-6 to Tennessee a week after a humbling loss? Unacceptable.
Where was the fire on November 8th? Where was the pride and swagger? A nationally televised opportunity to show the Tech loss was a fluke, Miami was out coached, outplayed and choked on the game's final drive in a season defining moment – a moment that essentially kept Miami out of this year's National Championship game.
Down 10-6 with a 2nd & goal from the 9 yard line, Berlin dropped back, attempted to throw to a wide open, in stride Winslow but was wrapped up by a Volunteer defender. Instead of taking the sack and being faced with a 3rd & goal from the 14, the result was an interception – his second of the day to go along with an earlier fumble. After a stellar defensive stand by the Canes, a muffed punt gave the Vols the ball back with an opportunity to run out the clock. 10-6, Cane fans. The first touchdown-less performance in the Orange Bowl since 1984. Even in the probation era against top ranked opponents, the Canes still scored at least a touchdown at home – yet the 2003 Canes couldn't muster one up against the Volunteers. Unforgivable.
Tennessee's Casey Clausen finished the day 11 of 18 for 81 yards and no touchdowns. Still, he went without an interception and didn't lose the game for the Vols. Cedric Houston was the leading rusher with 45 yards and no touchdowns. Troy Fleming lead all UT receivers with 25 yards on four grabs yet never found the end zone. The game's lone touchdown - a risky 4th and goal play before halftime where Derrick Tinsley scored on an end around with :20 left in the half. Point being, Miami's defense couldn't have done a better job if they tried. Holding Tennessee to 10 offensive points is more than enough to allow the Canes offense to win the game – yet somehow they couldn't make the big play when everything was on the line.
The next eight quarters of football essentially felt like one long, boring, painful football game.
Derrick Crudup was named the starter after Berlin's inaccuracies and four interceptions, no touchdowns and a 0-2 record in his previous two outings. Sadly, Crudup proved equally as ineffective and incapable of moving the Miami offense as the Canes stumbled to a nail biting 17-10 win over Syracuse. Crudup finished the day 5 of 13 for 80 yards – including a 45 yard touchdown to a wide open Ryan Moore - and an interception.
While Crudup wasn't the answer, Miami did find salvation in the form of a Tyrone Moss breakout game. 91 well earned yards and a game changing touchdown might've given the Canes a glimpse of their future.
The following week against Rutgers, Berlin was back behind center and the Crudup Project was no more. Being that the Canes were 10-0 all time against the Scarlett Knights, the focus wasn't on losing the game as much as it was working out the kinks for the following week at Pittsburgh. Keep it simple, avoid turnovers, ram the ball down Rutgers' throat and capitalize on their mistakes. A 6-3 halftime lead was quickly forgotten as the Canes went on a 28-0 tear in the third quarter.
Berlin started and played interception-free for the first time since the Temple outing a few weeks back. 86 yards on 14 attempts and two touchdowns. Moss, Payton and Jason Geathers combined for 185 yards and a touchdown while Kevin Everett atoned for his untimely touchdown drop against Virginia Tech with two scores against Rutgers. Still, this was conservative, no mistake, generic, timid offensive football – the complete opposite of what Miami Football is all about.
Still, even with a nightmare 2-2 stretch of football in the month of November, the Canes were 9-2 and a win away from an Orange Bowl berth. This was not the time to crucify Miami for their shortcomings against Virginia Tech and Tennessee. It was not the opportunity to attempt to shake up the system or right any wrongs. It was flat out time to just win the damned game. Do what you have to do to upend Pittsburgh and secure an Orange Bowl berth. The alternative was an unthinkable 9-3 and a trip to either the Continental Tire or Insight.com Bowls. 2001 Sugar, 2002 Rose, 2003 Fiesta and Worthless Bowl I or II didn't have a great ring to them. Something needed to be done and credit the Miami coaches and players, business was taken care of.
Miami jumped on Pittsburgh early and never looked back. After giving up an early touchdown, the Canes rattled off 28 unanswered in what turned out to be a 28-14 Miami victory. Berlin was a respectable 12 of 17 for 195 yards with a touchdown – a beautiful 45 yard laser to Parrish – and an interception. The dynamic duo that is Jarrett Payton and Tyrone Moss combined for 246 yards and three touchdowns. Pittsburgh was said to have a weak rush defense so Payton and Moss exploited it all evening. Geathers picked up 46 yards on the ground and was the leading receiver with 78 yards – 52 more than world beater, Heisman finalist Larry Fitzgerald who the Miami defense shut down all evening in another stellar outing.
The table was set for an Orange Bowl match up between Miami and the luckiest damn team in the land, Ohio State. College football politics, dollar signs and longstanding grudges prevented potentially this bowl season's most exciting game as the Buckeyes were shipped to Tempe and the Canes were faced with a rematch against the hated Florida State's Seminoles.
The 2004 Orange Bowl was deemed meaningless by the media – as well as some Hurricane faithful. Everyone wanted Ohio State on Miami's turf. A two-loss season kept the Canes out of the title game, but a rematch against the Buckeyes was the second best way to ring in the New Year. There is no way to exact revenge for what happened last season in Tempe, but one can just imagine how guys like Jon Vilma, Kellen Winslow, Sean Taylor, Vince Wilfork, D.J. Williams, Antrel Rolle, Mo Sikes and Roscoe Parrish would've reacted to a game against the team that ended their win streak on a controversial call that cost the Canes back to back titles. There would be no need to hype this match up. Hands down this would've been the most exciting game of this college football season.
But it wasn't to be.
Instead, Miami v. Florida State – Part Deux. Seminole fans were still crying a river about the monsoon that flooded Tallahassee on October 13th - in their minds, impacting the outcome of the first meeting between these two teams. Hurricane faithful had the "been there, done that" mentality and wanted a shot at the Buckeyes.
Within days of the BCS pairings, the 2004 Orange Bowl excitement kicked in. Any way you slice and dice it, it's still Miami and Florida State going head to head. The 50th meeting of these two long time foes who first met in 1951. The Noles took five straight when the Canes were on probation in the late nineties. Since then the tables turned with Miami winning four straight and going for number five.
No rain, no excuses and some hard hitting Miami v. Florida State football was on the menu for January 1st, 2004. The Canes jumped on top early with a Jon Peattie field goal with the first quarter ending 3-0 in Miami's favor.
The first half of the second quarter had Florida State going on a tear with a Lorenzo Booker 9 yard touchdown run and a 7 yard Chris Rix touchdown pass to tight end Matt Henshaw. Up 14-3 halfway through the second quarter, things were looking good for the Noles. But par for the course, Miami answered back immediately.
Jarrett Payton tore off the 46 yard run of his Miami career to put the Canes in position to score. Tyrone Moss busted three yards into the end zone to bring the score to 14-10 and in the final moments of the half a 44 yard Peattie field goal brought Miami to within a point of Florida State.
The second half proved to be the defensive battle many expected. Peattie his his third big time kick of the day with 10:19 left in the third quarter. His 51 yard bomb proved to be the difference maker – and a hell of a head coaching call by Larry Coker. Content to punt after a 3rd and long, a substitution infraction by the Noles gave Coker the five yards he needed to feel confident in Peattie's leg. Instead of a punt, it proved to be the game winning kick – even with over 25 minutes of football left to play.
Both teams buckled down in the fourth quarter and shut down the offenses. With 5:30 left it was Xavier Beitia's defining moment. His turn to make the big kick. A chance to atone for the 43-yard Wide Left miss that had the Noles on the wrong end of a 28-27 loss in 2002.
Can you say Wide Right IV? Still, the play of the game was yet to come.
With 4:44 remaining and Miami pegged at their 32 yard line with a 4th and inches, Coker was again forced to make a gutsy call. To say Brian Monroe was struggling in his punting game is beyond an understatement. With the game in its final moments and the four game win streak on the line, Coker went with the direct snap to D.J. Williams which resulted in a 31 yard gain.
Peattie would have a 45 yard field goal attempt blocked with 2:23 left and Florida State would again have one last chance, like they have so many times against Miami. This time it would be a broken up pass attempt on 4th and 12. Antrel Rolle and Sean Taylor would combine on a hit to knock the ball loose from P.K. Sam and to send the Noles back to Tallahassee with a fifth straight loss to their arch rivals. Miami 16, Florida State 14.
While Sugar Bowl dreams never came to fruition, it would be impossible to consider 2003 a loss. 11-2 on the season, #5 in the nation and Orange Bowl Champions is not a bad consolation prize considering where things could've gone this year. Comeback wins over Florida and West Virginia as big of difference makers this year as losses to Virginia Tech and Tennessee. Miami could've just have easily gone 12-1 or 9-4 depending on the result of a few big plays. They stepped it up in 11 of 13 occasions and perservered. The losses? Hopefully learning experiences that helped in 2003 and will be a difference maker for the underclassmen going into 2004.
Aside from the four game win streak, the true highlight of season's end were coaching decisions made my Larry Coker and staff. Many questions were swirling after the Tennessee loss and indecision at quarterback but once Miami got past Syracuse, the Canes controlled the tempo of the game in their final three contests. Coker stuck with Berlin, limited his attempts, grinded it out on the ground with Payton/Moss and went 3-0 – including wins at Pittsburgh and a rematch against Florida State. There was hard play on both sides of the ball and some gutsy play calling that defined the season.
Of course all of this begs the question, "what's in store for ‘04"? Will Coker make a strong push this month and land some top ranked recruits that are on the fence? What about Berlin? Will LC play the seniority game and leave Berlin behind center or will the freshman Kyle Wright get his chance to live up to expectations? With a season opener pitting Miami against Florida State under the lights of the Orange Bowl in the inaugural ACC match up, there is zero margin for error. Major decisions will have to be made before the season kicks off. Once September 6th is here, any personnel changes could affect the direction this team is headed.
Miami Football 2001 and 2002 did not need hands on coaching the way the 2003 team did. If Coker thought he had his hands full this season, just wait until 2004. Eighteen seniors are graduating and three or four juniors will declare for the draft. Butch Davis' recruits are almost all gone and a new crop of Coker's kids will take the field next season. The Larry Coker Era is truly underway in 2004. If the final games of 2003 are an indication of this man's guts and passion for the game, next season could be a defining chapter in Miami Hurricanes Football.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org