Dazed & Confused

Something flat out stinks in Coral Gables. Can you smell it? Opponents sure do. It's a pungent odor of embarrassment, confusion and fear. One week after an embarrassing effort in Chapel Hill, it was deja vu all over again for the Canes.

Tennessee road tripped it to the Orange Bowl last November a week after Miami lost at Virginia Tech. The Canes had a chance to exorcize all demons and take out all their frustration on the Volunteers. Instead, a lackluster effort resulted in a 10-6 loss to a team Miami should've put a hurting on based on stung pride alone.

This year, Clemson was that bounce back game where Miami would light up a lesser opponent due to embarrassment and bruised egos post-North Carolina. This was almost an attempt to atone the past two losses at once. Show that both Tennessee and North Carolina were flukes. Prove that Miami could respond in the face of disappointment and not meeting expectations. A week following a loss should always be the recipe for a fired up bunch of Canes out to make a statement.

A statement was made Saturday night.

The Miami Hurricanes are serious trouble.

Again, a lesser opponent strolled into preparations for Miami, expecting to win. 0-3 on the season away from home, Clemson believed they'd take down Miami on Saturday night. Forget that it was the Orange Bowl – once a house of horrors which boasted at 58-home game win streak. That was then. These days, the OB is just another stadium that comes alive only on occasion.

Last Saturday wasn't such an occasion.

55,225 showed up and suffered through another lackluster Miami effort which resulted in back to back losses for the second season in a row. A quick ten point lead jumped to 17-3 by the half. The Canes looked to be in control, but again it was a tale of two halves. The hometown kids lethargically moved around the field in a constant daze the final thirty minutes of play and overtime. Scoreless and giving up 21 points unanswered as Clemson had that bounce in their step, the better strategy and a sheer desire to win.

Any honest Miami fan will admit they felt this game slipping away early after halftime as the Canes struggled to move the ball. It was a two quarter long car crash. An accident waiting to happen.

Clemson cut the lead to 17-10 in the middle of third quarter and the momentum shift had officially taken place. Instead of coming out gangbusters the second half, setting the tone, scoring and putting the game a little further out of reach – Miami went through the motions while Clemson methodically strung together clutch plays in a timely manner. The coaches say the Canes felt they had the game in the bag and could coast – but anyone watching saw emotionless Miami Football.

The chipping away at the stone paid off for the Tigers. 17-10… 17-17… overtime… 24-17 and again with short yardage in the red zone – another Miami drive stalled. Game over. Back to back losses. Questions abroad.

For everyone who suffered through North Carolina last week – this week proved even more frustrating. To come out, drive the field, score and eventually take a 17-3 lead – it seemed Miami was ready to bounce back in style. Shake off the cobwebs, roll an inferior opponent, get back to winning ways and begin preparations for Virginia. Not quite.

For what it's worth – which isn't much right now – truth is, the Canes are physically beat up. Eric Winston. Santonio Thomas. Tyler McMeans. Greg Olson. Ryan Moore. Kyle Cobia. All were important to Miami at one point of this season. Some vitally – some in regards to depth. Either way, bodies are taking beatings and the effects are being felt. In what was the eighth game this season, freshman Rashaun Jones and Carlos Armour lost their redshirts Saturday night. If healthy, this obviously wouldn't have been an option for Miami. To merely need these bodies on specials teams shows how beat up this bunch is.

That said – more than physically, Miami is mentally whipped.

To what degree, who knows?

Is this the second coming of a 1993 Dennis Erickson-led bunch that quit after a late season loss to West Virginia? They packed it in, took the Fiesta Bowl by a drizzle and laid a 29-0 egg against Arizona. The old mindset that Miami only plays for National Championship and in an anti-climatic game like that, the Canes just didn't care.

Where are the Canes of 1990? The ones who lost two games during the regular season, felt they were still the best team in the land and laid a 46-3 Cotton Bowl beating on No. 3 Texas? Long gone are those prideful No. 4 Canes who look to make a positive and bold statement after an embarrassing loss.

Injuries might be a valid excuse if Miami lost to formidable opponents – but this was North Carolina and Clemson. Both beat the Canes, but neither is the more talented bunch. Miami brought their "C" games in both outings and paid a dear price. A little confidence, a dose of pride and a bit more effort and this team is 8-0 going into Virginia. Instead, the wheels seem to have fallen off and things look to get worse before they get better.

What was the mindset going into Clemson preparations last week? Where were the team leaders? The closed door player only meetings? A coaching staff who demanded more? Simply put, where was the pride and confidence needed to bounce back?

Word out of Miami via players and coaches was that things needed to get better. The kids assumed the responsibility for the North Carolina loss and the coaches blamed their execution. Instead of accountability and a commitment to righting the wrong, it's just been a ton of coach speak and rah-rah chatter.

Vintage Miami would've made the promise that a better team would see the field against Clemson. The coaching staff would assume responsibility for the loss and the buck would stop with them. Mentally, the team would've put North Carolina 100% behind them, solely focused on Clemson and made them pay. There would be no other option the way things used to be at The U.

The complete opposite occurred and moments after another embarrassing loss, more head coach speak.

"They made plays and we didn't make plays. They did what they had to do to win the game," said Coker.

"This will really test us because we haven't lost a lot, and now we have lost back to back games. This will really be a big test on our football team. I think we'll respond, I think we'll come back and fight and prepare. And if we do that we'll have a chance of winning more. It's extremely disappointing. We looked like two different teams in the first half and second half."

Where does one even begin to address those statements?

Probably regarding the constant use of the phrase, "I think." Leaders don't utter those words. They exude confidence and their men would run through a wall for them, if asked. How are the Canes supposed to respond when their leader "thinks" they will respond after another loss? When he "thinks" they'll fight and prepare? "If" that's done – this team has a "chance" of winning more? Unacceptable.

What should've been said?

That the performance was atrocious. That the coaching staff again didn't have these kids ready to play – and for that, they take all the blame. Admit that while there were injuries – Miami still had enough weapons to beat Clemson at night, in the Orange Bowl a week after a disappointing loss and didn't.

If the coaching staff accepts losing in stride, what message does that send the players? That losing is OK. That gosh darn it, North Carolina and Clemson were good enough teams to lose to. Bouncing back will just eventually happen.

Steal a page from Jimmy Johnson's playbook where he reminded players that scholarships were annual and he had the right to not renew one the following season. Make it clear that every position is wide open to the best man for the job. Let the world know that these kids will be worked over in practice this week and that they WILL be ready to play this Saturday in Charlottesville. Don't think. Be bold. Sack up.

Year one in the ACC and Miami already sports two black eyes thanks to middle of the pack teams. Conference rivals are already spouting off that the Canes aren't in Kansas anymore, regarding thirteen seasons in the Big East.

Let's can all that chatter right now.

North Carolina was no better than Rutgers in a good season while Clemson falls somewhere around the Syracuse or Boston College level. The effort seen the past two weeks was similar to the going-through-the-motions displayed by the 2002 Canes against the Scarlet Knights.

Down 17-14 early in the fourth quarter, a talented Miami bunch with two Heisman candidates turned on the jets and scored 28 points unanswered in just shy of ten minutes of play. The end result was a 42-17 win and the less than stellar effort was swept under the rug when Miami remained undefeated and rolled Tennessee in Knoxville the following week, 26-3.

The lack of effort displayed the past few weeks – Miami would struggle in the Big East this season. The Canes have dominated the ACC's crown jewel Florida State to the tune of six straight. It's not an ACC thing. Miami's 2004 squad is underachieving while its staff has been out coached this second half of the season.

One thing Miami seemed to have never gained back in this post-probation era is its killer instinct. That in itself is the main culprit behind this lack of swagger everyone speaks of. The Canes' bravado is on lockdown as the past few Miami squads were like a sports car with the governor set at 55 m.p.h. The nice guy approach that's trickled down from this current coaching regime started the first game of 2001 and continues three and a half seasons later.

Up 30-0 in Happy Valley, Miami put it in cruise control and got out with a 33-7 victory over Penn State. Talent at every position, the Canes could win a game in the first half and wind that clock down the final thirty minutes. Storm in, take care of business, rest the second half, shake hands, leave and prepare for next week.

The trend continued – though the talent level sometimes made it appear otherwise. In the 59-0 rout of No. 14 Syracuse and 65-7 beating of No. 12 Washington, Miami dominated every facet of the game and cruised to wins of that nature. Even when not trying to run up a score, the Canes were that much better than their opponents.

Even with all that talent, the Canes did almost choke away a shot at the Rose Bowl as coaches refused to go for the jugular at No. 14 Virginia Tech. Up 26-10 with just under nine minutes remaining between a title game birth and a mere BCS bid, the Hokies' comeback began.

One quick score, a completed two-point conversion, a blocked punt and another score had Tech down 26-24 and attempting a game tying two-point conversion. Thankfully the football gods intervened and Ernest Wilford dropped the game tying score. Ed Reed sealed the win with a late game interception – but up sixteen points and just over a half quarter of football standing in the way of Pasadena, why didn't Miami's staff go for the kill? Secure the win with another score or two and begin cruising up 30 points with half a quarter to play. Miami Football was hated in the 80s and 90s – but make no mistake, it was always respected and consistently feared across the board. No one wanted to play the Canes at home, yet also knew they probably weren't safe at home either. Oklahoma. Notre Dame. Nebraska. Michigan. Florida State. Miami took on all comers. The phrase, "anytime & anyplace" was born.

Between 1985 and 1989 the Canes beat four No. 1 teams – Oklahoma twice, Florida State and Notre Dame. They also picked off No. 3 Oklahoma, No. 4 Florida State, No. 6 Nebraska, No. 7 Alabama, No. 8 South Carolina, No. 10 Arkansas, No. 10 Notre Dame, No. 10 Florida State , No. 11 LSU, No. 13 Florida and No. 14 Pittsburgh. Over that five year span, statements were constantly made and teams feared that date with destiny. These days, they embrace it.

Miami made their living by putting their collective foot on an opponent's throat and squashing them whenever possible. That mindset produced the nine year undefeated run at the Orange Bowl. It directly resulted in four National Championships and three more title game berths over the ten year span, 1983-1992.

Post-Clemson, the gritty Sinorice Moss uttered the following comments:

"Just the thought of losing. And losing at home. We don't lose at home. We don't lose period. It is nothing that we want to do and anything we like to do, but it happens."

This used to be the case at Miami, but no more.

Moss and this current group were brought up by their Hurricane elders to believe this, but it hasn't been backed up as of late.

The Canes do lose at home. Twice in their last seven games to be exact – and both times to teams Miami's should've beaten. Neither Tennessee nor Clemson feared the Orange Bowl. The Vols posed for post game pictures around the stadium while the Tigers mocked fans and danced on the field. The aura and mystique? That's the old Miami. This current team cracks under pressure, can't put an opponent away, aren't hard to figure out schematically and have proven that on any given Saturday, a lesser team can go toe to toe with this once feared juggernaut.

Cream always rises to the top. It can't be stopped. Stir it and shake it down, but when the milk settles, the cream comes right back up. This past weekend, Oklahoma and Southern California again proved to be the resilient bunch that rose to the top while Miami smelled like two week old spoiled milk.

A bitter Texas A&M team welcomed No. 2 Oklahoma to Kyle Field – one of college football's most intimidating venues. Stinging from a 77-0 loss in 2003, this was a revenge games that would bring out a feisty Aggies team. The Sooners were given all they could handle. They were stung by a few gimmick plays and an A&M coaching staff that pulled out all stops. Still, in the end – another Sooners win, 42-35.

Later in the eve, No. 1 USC took on Oregon State – and the weather – in Corvallis. With fog thick enough to cut with a knife, the Beavers pounced on a 13-0 lead. The stars were aligned for an upset – until spark plug and well utilized Reggie Bush returned a punt 65 yards for a score, putting the Trojans ahead 21-13. Leading by one heading into the final fifteen minutes of play, USC proved again that they are a fourth quarter team and outscored OSU 14-7 en route to a 28-20 victory.

Hours earlier, Almost 5,000 miles southeast in Little Havana, Miami faithful and players held up the traditional four fingers. Sitting on a 17-10 lead, the Canes and the Orange Bowl crowd signaled that it was time for that home crowd mystique to kick in.

It never happened.

The four finger salute fell on deaf ears and didn't faze the opponent. Clemson forced overtime, scored and stopped Miami. Was there pass interference on the final play? Yes. Still, a 17-3 lead was blown over the final two quarters of plays and the Canes were scoreless from halftime on. Like Tempe 2003, another game never should've come down to a controversial, overtime call.

After starting out 24-0 prior to the aforementioned Fiesta Bowl, Miami's coaching staff sports a 17-5 record. Even worse, the Canes are 10-4 in their past fourteen games. The honeymoon is definitely over – as is the Butch Davis era, as Larry Coker's recruits are now suiting up and playing every position at Miami. The result has been good – but not great. Unfortunately, this is Miami – and just good isn't good enough. Greatness is demanded.

The lack of leadership that produced comments like "I think" is also resulting in a lack of on the field leadership. It's been uttered for years now, but where is the next Ed Reed? Someone who gets it done on the practice field, in the locker room and on game day? Has a Miami team ever been less vocal, less confident and more passive in the non probation, modern era? Forget swagger for now – how about just a little old fashioned pride, accountability and effort?

As incredible as it sounds, at 6-2 the Canes can still win the ACC and head to a BCS bowl if it wins out. Take down Virginia, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech – and Miami wins takes conference bragging rites its inaugural season. The losses against North Carolina and Clemson will loom, but regarding the big picture – Miami still remains and elite, as it did in 2003 with an 11-2 season, an Orange Bowl win and final ranking of No. 5. Getting whooped at Virginia Tech and then never waking up against Tennessee were dulled when Miami won out against Syracuse, Rutgers and Pittsburgh. Another Big East title pitted the Canes against the Noles and another Miami win somewhat quieted Hurricane Nation for the off season.

This season, the losses are to worse competition. Even worse, the remaining opposition is much more trying than Syracuse, Rutgers and Pittsburgh. Heading into Virginia, Miami is an underdog for the first time this season. Wake Forest heads to Miami a week later – and is no pushover as they took Florida State to the brink a few weeks back. Get through those and Virginia Tech still looms. Sure, it's at home – but how much did that home field advantage help this past weekend?

Winning the ACC is still in reach – but for a team that showed no resiliency against Clemson a week after the North Carolina loss, what can really be expected next weekend? What will it take for the Canes to roll?

How about the Miami defense from the first half of the season, meshed with the Miami offense which exploded against Louisville and NC State?

Still, even with bodies flying – what about the team's psyche, the play calling, the coaching staff's lack of accountability or the fact that every team facing Miami sees them as simplistic, beatable and as confident as wounded dog?

Less than twenty four hours after Miami lost to Clemson, Bill Parcells' Dallas Cowboys were spanked in Cincinnati, 26-3. His reaction?

"That's about as bad as you can get. I'm really embarrassed for that kind of performance. There's no explanation for it, except we're poorly coached and we played bad. I don't know where we go from here, if anywhere," said Parcells.

"I really don't have much to say, fellows, except we were poorly prepared, we played poorly, we were inefficient and we were just awful."

While his rant might be a bit much for the college game – it hits home. At the end of the day, the buck stops with the coaching staff. The great ones are accountable and work tirelessly until they find answers and right the ship.

Latest clippings out of Coral Gables on Monday morning? Three gems.

- "We basically lost to the right people (North Carolina and Clemson.) But the flip side of it is we've got to beat the right people."

- "I don't have any answers against great running backs. I don't know if anybody else does, either. The great ones seem to make plays."

- "I think this team has character. I think they'll respond. We have a tremendous challenge to finish this thing off in a proper manner."

Not exactly Vince Lombardi.

North Carolina and Clemson aren't the "right people." They were lesser teams that Miami was supposed to beat. The Tar Heels were a 22-point underdog while the Tigers were supposedly getting a riled up, backed up, out to prove a point Hurricanes bunch. A loss to No. 4 Florida State in the season opener? Tolerable. They're a big time college football program. The others aren't.

As for great running backs, they are taken out of games on many occasions by coaching staff's with a solid game plan. Stack the line, stick your eight men in the box and let your defense go gangbusters. Miami didn't face "great" running backs either of these past two weeks. Chad Scott was UNC's third string tailback. He played injured and still amassed 175 yards and two touchdowns. Reggie Merriweather ran for a career-high 114 yards and three touchdowns in Clemson's first road win of the season. Not exactly greatness.

Regarding the notion this character-filled team will "finish this thing off in a proper manner" – one has to wonder, based on what? A defensive collapse over the past four games? A shell-shocked group of deer-in-the-headlights Canes looking for leadership and not finding it? Miami resembles modern era Mike Tyson right now. With glory days behind, lesser opponents are stepping up and beating someone that was once great. What's to make anyone believe this team can right the ship going into Virginia weekend?

Make no mistake – even with injuries, Miami still has the skills to beat Virginia. The players could theoretically turn things around this weekend and finally play that complete game they've searched for all season. Will they? Don't bet on it. Not with all the double talk taking place these past few days.

If the coaching staff isn't fuming with these losses, where will the intensity and do or die attitude needed to turn things around come from? The only thing to take from Clemson weekend is that Miami circa 2004 seems to have packed it in. The Canes are reactive – not the aggressors. Even when they did set the tone with a 17-3 lead, they folded. They passively let the Tigers pry a win from their hands drive by drive.

Instead, Miami fans should prepare for things to remain status quo around Coral Gables. Coaches who start out 24-0, win a National Championship, reach back to back title games and make it to four straight BCS games are not fired after year four – even if the result since that undefeated start is now at 17-5.

Coker and staff have a long leash. Losses to North Carolina and Clemson are quickly defended with three year old statistics. The focus will remain on the wins and accomplishments while many turn a blind eye.

Other are quick to scrutinize and call it as they see it.

Four losses in fourteen games is not a fluke – it's proving to be a trend. If anything, those four losses could've easily been eight.

Though a stretch, Florida State had a great shot at winning the Orange Bowl if they learned to make a late game kick. Same could be said for their opening season loss. Xavier Beitia goes 2 for 2 on those and Miami goes down.

A miracle 4th & 13 Brock Berlin to Kellen Winslow reception kept the drive alive and propelled Miami to a 22-20 win over West Virginia last season.

Weeks back, Louisville was a gimmie interception away from shutting the door on Miami's comeback, 38-34. Everyone was on cloud nine with the 41-38 win, but that did nothing more than cloud the fact that when leading 34-31 after Devin Hester's punt return, the Canes' defense let a back up freshman quarterback march the Cardinals down the field with ease.

Sitting at 17-5 since the Fiesta Bowl, have some of these miracle comebacks – Florida, West Virginia, Florida State and Louisville – actually hurt Miami's long term future? Has it clouded the perception of what might be obvious? That this team might be headed in the wrong direction?

If the Canes wound up with three or four losses in back to back years, a changing of the guard would be obvious. Instead, by Miami's standards – this program is idling at status quo with another two loss season staring them in the face.

Or is it?

Two ends of the spectrum here. If one were to put on those orange and green shades, they'd call the past two weeks a fluke and believe that the Canes will win out. Take the ACC year one, roll into the Sugar Bowl and take on a formidable opponent like Auburn or Oklahoma. Take them down, finish the season 10-2 and ride out with a top five ranking.

The other end of the spectrum sees Miami's confidence in the toilet and the coaching staff broken beyond repair. Losses most likely to come at the hands of Virginia and Virginia Tech. Third or fourth place in the ACC, a throwaway bowl which the Canes won't be up for an in the end, 7-5 on the season with a million questions entering 2005.

Maybe it falls somewhere in the middle. We'll soon find out.

Saturday is another telling day for the Canes. Another do or die weekend – this time, legitimately sending The U to the middle of the ACC pack with a loss. Does this atrocious trend continue – or does someone finally prove that enough is enough?

After watching both North Carolina and Clemson pick this team apart, Virginia will be ready.

Will Miami? Only with a turnaround of monumental proportions.

We're nearing, "stick a fork in 'em" territory, Hurricane faithful.

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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