Day After Carolina

Looking back, it almost seems inevitable now – doesn't it? 38 points given up to Louisville and then 35 to NC State? Something was out of whack - yet remained unfixable - two weeks in a row in big time games. The trap was set with a lesser opponent waiting in the wings this past weekend and the Canes fell hard in a very avoidable letdown game. The message was relayed – but remained ignored.

Louisville tapped lightly on the door. "Excuse me, we think we see some holes in your young defense. Allow us to try and exploit."

The Cardinals brought it as long as they could, but fell short against the Canes, 41-38. In this barnburner – UL amassed 507 yards on a Miami defense who was then averaging just over 200 yards a game. Louisville found a wide open middle of the field – but couldn't find an answer for Devin Hester, who's 78-yard punt return wound up being the ultimate difference maker in the game.

A week later, the tapping got a little heavier. In Raleigh, it was full fledged knocking on the door. NC State saw what Louisville exposed and did their own damage to Miami. A respectable 180 yards on the ground and 260 in the air.

Sloppy play by NC State and a few big plays by the Miami D allowed the Canes the luxury of running the clock out for the better part of a 45-31 victory. The defense that allowed 19 points over the first four games of the season had now given up 69 points in back to back games and almost 1,000 yards in total offense. Time to get back to basics, one would think – but no.

Instead, a sub par North Carolina (3-4) bunch didn't bother knocking last Saturday. They rolled up and kicked that door right in. It was the first time three teams have scored 30+ points in back to back to back games against Miami since 1984. The Canes survived the Cardinals and Wolfpack – but with the Heels, the third time was hardly the charm.

279 yards on the ground with a no-name, third string running back. 266 yards in the air with a decent quarterback – who somehow had a more impressive outing against Miami, than he did in the season opener against lowly William & Mary.

The ultimate blow? How about the fact a nameless, freshman kicker – who'd never kicked a game winner in his life – rolled up, survived the time out and drilled a knuckleball through the uprights as time expired.

All those big time games against big time teams with highly touted kickers that seem to go in Miami's favor? Not tonight.

In most embarrassing fashion, the scrawniest kid on the field (think part Jeff Spicoli with a dash of Leif Garrett, in shoulder pads) booted a 42-yard dagger right into the hearts of every Miami player, coach and lifelong fan.

The morning after – everyone wants answers. How? Why? What was lacking?

Simply put, ‘The U" are every opponent's National Championship game. Look at history. Everyone wants a piece of the Canes. Losing to Miami can suck the life out of a program.

Cough… Washington Huskies, 2001… cough… 65-7.

Conversely, a win over Miami can save a season or boost a program to that next level. There is an aura that's followed Hurricane Football for a few decades now. Invincibility. Confidence with a dash of cockiness. Untouchable. Dare I say, it? Swagger.

Miami's bravado in the 1980s and 1990s is exactly what "it's a Canes thing" refers to. It's that intangible - that extra *something* it takes to be a Cane.

Five star recruit? All state? No one's impressed. Shave that head, Freshman and earn your way onto this squad. An underdog program that made its mark attracting kids who were underdogs, too. An "us against the world" mentality that couldn't be fabricated. It developed early on and was enforced once signing to play for "The U."

Right when it looked like Miami owned college football with four National Championships in a nine year span – things peaked. Jimmy left, Dennis took over, players objected, mistakes were made, egos got too big and in the blink of an eye Miami Football was on life support. There's 1989 through 1994 in a nutshell.

We know the rest. Butch Davis. Time to clean house. Business approach for players and coaches. Prepare to lose in the short run. Recruit wisely. Sell the rebuilding process. Follow a strict set of rules. Return winning ways to Coral Gables.

Davis felt the brunt of a 40-19 record over five seasons – yet never reaped the rewards of his efforts. Larry Coker took the reigns, lead the Canes to a National Championship and back to back title games. After three seasons, his resume read 35-3.

A National Championship the inaugural season allows the head coach an extended honeymoon period. That's the nature of the game. The drawback? Winning a ring that first season made it all look too easy and blowing out the gates with a 24-0 record set an incredible precedent. The unfair question has been posed – "why hasn't that feat been accomplished again these past two seasons?"

Miami faithful are jaded because this most recent loss never should've happened. Not in a million years. Play the game ninety nine more times and the Canes win it ninety nine more times.

No disrespect to North Carolina, but they truly aren't a good football team. Still, that matters little today. Last Saturday night they were the better squad and made the plays when it counted. They fought harder and wanted it more. A classic case of Miami playing down to the level of competition. Florida State, Louisville and NC State were billed as the big games the first half of the season. No one was thinking North Carolina – a squad that finished ninth in the ACC last season. In Big East terms, they'd be Rutgers in an average season and hardly a threat for Miami. A game that a previous squad hitting on all cylinders could sleep walk through and still win 38-3.

The Canes came out and made statements against the Noles, Cardinals and Wolfpack. Whether they start slow or come out strong – the Canes will go for four quarters out-willing you, out-gutting you and out-playing you. Mistakes were made, yet overcome.

The message delivered to the Tar Heels? This was just another game.

A week back there were rumblings of verbal jabs taken by players the week of the NC State game. A couple of Canes were told via text message, to bring their "A" game – to which they came back with something along the lines of – "we'd beat you with our ‘C' game."

Who knows the true validity of the statement above? Regardless, it sounds like something Miami would say. An aura of indifference displayed toward lesser opponents.

An aura no longer being put out? One of invincibility.

Somewhere between the pre-probation era and the post probation resurgence, some swagger was lost. To rebuild, Miami needed to trade cockiness for character – a word that Davis constantly repeated. Character was needed to rebuild this thing from the ground up. The Canes essentially lost the right to be cocky. Hard to display swagger when you're going 5-6 in 1997 and losing to Florida State, 47-0. Just keep quiet, work hard, pay the price and your day will come.

Make no mistake – the Canes are not only back, they have been stronger than ever. Four straight BCS bowl games. Shafted out of a spot in the 2000 title game, undefeated the next season and won the National Championship. A year later, a 34-game win streak and second straight title berth. Entering the North Carolina showdown, Miami was sitting at 52-4 this decade.

One would think that all this success and dominance the past few seasons would instill a little more bounce in the boys' step. Get a little more vocal. Exude that confidence - which sometimes bordered on arrogance - yet always made Miami, Miami.

Bernie Kosar, Melvin Bratton, Bennie Blades, Jerome Brown, Michael Irvin, Russell Maryland, Bernard Clark, Randall Hill, Gino Torretta, Lamar Thomas, Micheal Barrow, Jessie Armstead, Ray Lewis or Warren Sapp. Look at their swagger. Embrace how they represented this program on the field, all showed their unique personalities and what they – and countless others - as a unit did for this program

A 58-home game win streak doesn't happen by accident.

One can only imagine how many teams lost at the pre-probation Orange Bowl before their team charter even touched down at Miami International. Not one home loss from 1985 until 1994. It's mind-boggling in this era of college football.

The greatest Miami teams have suffered heartbreaking losses to big time opponents. There's no crime in losing. National Championship dreams have come crashing down in Tempe, New Orleans, Miami and South Bend.

They're never supposed to go down in Chapel Hill - unless it's on the hardwood.

The Canes controlled their collective fate heading into Saturday night. 6-0 with five to go. On paper, North Carolina was Miami's weakest remaining opponent. A 22-point favorite, the Canes found themselves trailing by a touchdown the majority of the game and unable to make the big late game stop to thwart the last second field goal attempt.

That's more than a lack of swagger. It's a team and coaching staff in need of a wake up call and attitude adjustment going into Clemson weekend.

Miami no longer instills fear in opponents just by merely showing up. Anyone still believing that's the case, look at the two most recent losses – Tennessee and North Carolina. For all intents and purposes, both sub par teams. The Tar Heels will most likely not make a bowl in 2004 – but essentially won a National Championship the past weekend, going where so few have with a win over the Canes.

Had Miami merely brought their "B" game or played with intensity on both sides of the ball, both games are won.

The Vols came in after the Canes' season changing 31-7 loss in Blacksburg. A vintage, prideful, hungry Miami team would've throttled Tennessee. The sting from the loss a week before would've hurt like hell. It could've been the '72 Dolphins lining up across from them - old school Canes would've made someone pay.

Instead, Miami rolled over in a lackluster 10-6 loss and was shell-shocked the next two games - going to the wire with a terrible Syracuse team and lethargically stumbling past Rutgers.

A year later, what – if anything – was learned from that experience? Tune in this Saturday.

Miami v. Clemson 2004 is a defining moment for Hurricane Football. One can't really call it a "big" game as the Tigers are an average bunch – but Miami just lost to a below average bunch in Chapel Hill. This game now means everything. The college football world is about to find out the mettle of Hurricane players and coaches.

Is Miami Football a reality – or an old myth? Are these the playmakers and unique personalities of tomorrow like Irvin, Lewis and Sapp – or just a talented bunch of kids going through the motions and filling the pipeline at NFL U because they know all eyes are on Coral Gables every April before the draft?

Let it be said, losses like this hardly rest solely on the shoulders of 18 to 21 year old kids. At the end of the day, the coaches cashing the hefty paychecks are responsible. You can't blame employees for following bosses' orders and performing the functions the company puts before them. If there are issues with the design of a house – don't blame the builders, wring the architect's neck.

The damage control and coach-speak after a loss like this leaves many wondering what is really going on behind closed doors. How good - or bad - is this team?

"Teams that play us, I think they raise their level," Coker said. "That's part of the beauty of being at Miami."

Coach, you knew that as a coordinator from 1995-2000 and saw the point driven home the past 3.5 years as this team's leader. Teams always raise their level against the Canes.

The million dollar question is, how do Miami coaches raise players' intensity level when Florida State, Virginia Tech or Florida aren't across the line of scrimmage? Days of sleepwalking or bringing that "C" game against lesser opponents are a thing of the past. Embrace it, fix it or prepare to lose a lot more football games.

Bet the house Clemson are licking their chops regarding this upcoming weekend.

1,492 isn't only the year Columbus sailed the ocean blue – it's the yardage Miami's given up the past three games. The holes in the defense have been there three weeks straight. Opponents are almost laughing at how simplistic Miami's schemes have remained. Are they exposed a fourth time – or can the Miami coaching staff make adjustments and prime this team to make a positive statement this weekend? One will see.

Everything trickles down from the top and every Miami team has its coaches' fingerprints all over it.

Howard and his kids were gritty and out to make a name for themselves and the program. Jimmy coached with bravado and swagger and his players acted it out weekly on and off the field. After a quick start, Dennis proved to be a poor judge of talent and inept in other ways. As a result, he'd field a team that could get throttled in the 1994 Fiesta Bowl, 29-0 by Arizona – yet months later knocked off No. 1 Florida State, 34-20 when their backs were to the wall. Seven games and an Orange Bowl loss later, he resigned.

During and after the probation era, Butch proved to be a disciplinarian and all business. As a result, he fielded a business minded, mostly swagger-less bunch. There were a few vintage Canes in Davis' era that could've given any swagger-filled Canes a run for their money – but it wasn't a universally accepted mindset.

What's the writing on the wall, year four of the Coker Era?

A title year one and a great run again in year two. A stand up guy who the players love and went to bat for. 24 straight wins before an ill timed flag resulted in that first controversial loss.

Coker was bulletproof.

Were they Davis' players he was winning with – or was he behind the scenes with recruiting? Was the loss of Davis' right hand man Pete Garcia going to come back and bite Miami? Again – no one cared. The Canes were winning. Nothing else mattered.

A loss at North Carolina truly shakes the system to the core and Pandora's Box has been opened.

Upon closer inspection, one sees that Miami is 17-4 since the end of 2002. A far cry from 24-0. While losses are expected – the way in which losses were incurred has many folk skeptical. Have the Canes completely lost that swagger bounce in their step? Can they get it back under current leadership? Is a change in order – or does Miami just have to weather a temporary storm?

There seems to be an ounce of stubbornness when it comes to backing away from a certain style of coaching. Just because it worked in the past doesn't mean it is foolproof. Brock Berlin isn't Ken Dorsey - and vice versa. Berlin performs better in the shotgun and sees the field better. Why leave him under center all the time if that's the case? Same with what we are seeing on defense. Opposing offensive coordinators have licked their chops the past three weeks. The reaction in MIami regarding defensive woes:

"The scheme's been very successful for us for the most part of four years," said Coker. "We just don't want to abandon what's been good for us."

Don't abandon coach, just fine tune. The 2004 Miami Defense is not the 2001 National Champions.

Off the most recent undefeated squad -18 defensive players wound up on NFL rosters. Nine were selected in the first round. Some have already made the Pro Bowl. How much credit is being given to the true athletes on those past few Miami rosters, for making the system and scheme work to perfection? Instead, much of the credit has been given to coordinator Randy Shannon - the defensive guru. Now that the system has broken down three games in a row - questions are brewing. Shannon's response to his players' breakdown before Saturday's match up:

"They got big-headed," Shannon said. "When you have success the big question is how are you going to handle it."

Shannon has made it clear that he stated this bunch had the "potential" to be great - but would take time to get there. Still, even the greenest Miami defense in the modern era should never give up 545 to the likes of a North Carolina. A far cry from having the "potential" to be great. That is flat out embarrassing and not Miami style football. Defensive gurus need to see the breakdowns and must make necessary. The Canes D is nowhere near as bad as it's played the past three weeks.

As much as it pains supporters of "The U" - the Canes looked soft on Saturday night. Talk about a word one doesn't ever think to associate with Miami – soft.

Third string tailbacks don't amass 174 yards against Shannon's defense. They are tattooed the first drive of the game, planted in the turf, dragged off the field by trainers and run tentative all night while Hurricane defenders continue intimidating them with trash talk, bone jarring hits, strips and forced fumbles. Just ask Randy when he wore that #22 for the Canes and swarmed ballcarriers as a Miami linebacker and four year letterman who started on the 1987 National Championship team. No third string tailback would make a name for himself on Miami's watch.

This is Coral Gables – not Austin, Texas. Miami isn't a program that brings in the highest rated recruits, aspires no higher than conference championships, occasionally wins the rivalry games and is satisfied with 10-2 every year. Ain't happening. The bar was set two decades ago and it will remain there. The Canes remain in the National Championship hunt every season and win the games they are supposed to win. If you can't handle those demands, Coral Gables won't remain home for long.

Occasionally a better team will knock Miami off. Go back, regroup and tag the next opponent in the mouth. North Carolina does not fall into that "better team" category. On what was billed as "Upset Saturday" – few experts believed that Miami was a prime candidate to get knocked off.

Southern California strolled into Washington State and cruised to a 42-12 win – like No. 1 teams are supposed to. Sure, the Cougars are banged up and nowhere near the team they were predicted to be in 2004. So what? North Carolina was banged up and beat Miami while other top ranked teams took care of business.

No. 2 Oklahoma visited rival Oklahoma State in Stillwater – a team that's knocked them out of the running the past 2 of 3 seasons. With the money on the table, the Sooners came up strong. The two squads traded blows all day long – but OU outlasted OSU, 38-35. One step closer to undefeated.

Auburn rolled Ole Miss and Georgia got the Florida monkey off their back. Teams that wanted to find a way this weekend, did. Miami didn't.

Hurricane Nation has pounded that drum all season, chanting, "disrespect." As it's oft said in Dade County, "no mas." That rallying cry goes right out the window after a loss like this.

The time has come to stop talking and start doing. Make a positive statement on the field this week. Focus on nothing but Clemson and make them pay. Beat the Tigers or be prepared to be called frauds and overrated… and that's just by the hometown crowd.

Again, Miami has everything to prove this Saturday night – and like so many other teams this weekend, Clemson has the luxury of playing loose, with nothing to lose.

There aren't many "do overs" in life – or déjà vu moments where history is kept from repeating itself. Oddly enough, Miami gets that chance this weekend. Last November, after being embarrassed by Virginia Tech to the tune of 31-7, things appeared to be at their worst. They weren't.

The only thing more embarrassing than the Virginia Tech debacle was showing up lifeless a week later in a 10-6 loss to Tennessee.

Almost a year to the day, North Carolina drops Miami's pants in front of the nation and a week later, a sold out Orange Bowl has the chance to be the difference maker while the Canes can take out all frustration on the Tigers.

Miami got their lip buttoned in Chapel Hill. Time to move on and see how this team responds. Come out possessed – or turn tail and run? Use this loss as a motivator – or believe this defense is weak, pack in the season and drop a few more to lesser opponents?

The coaches will prove this weekend if they are leaders or not. In the palm of their collective hand - a talented, young team searching for answers and a point in the right direction. Put every ounce of energy into getting their heads right. Miami has the talent to beat every team on their schedule. What has lacked at times is a solid game plan and a belief to do so. Utilize the playmakers, throw new wrinkles in what is being called a very predictable defense and fill these kids with confidence.

A defining Saturday is on tap for the Canes. Nationally televised and all eyes again on the Canes. Will it be a rerun of last Saturday's letdown – or Classic Sports-esque, Decade of Dominance-style beat down from yesteryear? No excuses or time to wallow in sorrow. This is Miami. Get out there and get back to winning ways. There's no alternative.

The Call: No score prediction. Sack up, have swagger and win this game Miami style. End of story.


Born and raised in Miami, FL and a CanesTime.com columnist since 1996, Chris Bello now resides in San Diego, CA and handles online sales and provides all content for www.allCanes.com. Feel free to send your comments or to contact him at chris@allCanes.com


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