Without Mr. McNabb directing the offense, the Orangemen have been a team without an identity. R.J Anderson started the season only to give way to on again, off again Troy Nunes. Ol' Troy boy took over midseason after Anderson led the team to four straight losses. While Nunes helped Syracuse take down Rutgers, Central Florida and then once-beaten Virginia Tech the party came to an end two weeks ago when Boston College hammered the Orange 41-20.
Syracuse sits at 4-7 with no shot at making a bowl game. Going 5-7 would bring little consolation except that the fifth win of 2002 would come over No. 1 Miami – a team that has embarrassed the Orangemen three years in a row.
Ten games into the Hurricanes' season equals ten wins. A 32-game win streak is alive and well. Miami has looked dominant at times yet vulnerable at others. No matter though as long as each Saturday ends with a win.
Two games stand between a trip to Tempe for a Fiesta or staying home for the holidays and preparing for and berth in the Orange Bowl, possibly against hated former rival Notre Dame. A helluva consolation prize for any other program, but for Miami. Second place isn't good enough this season. The dream of back-to-back titles came into play moments after the 37-14 Rose Bowl win last season. The Canes have answered ten challenges this season and must answer two more in the next ten days.
The Canes need to look no further ahead than this weekend in the Carrier Dome. A loss and everything is ruined. On paper, Miami should dominate Syracuse yet again. In reality the Orangemen have all the motivation they need for the upset. Should Miami come out flat due to complacency or lack of focus, a shocker could be in the making.
There was a certain vibe and mindset when Syracuse visited Miami last November. They strode in with a No. 14 ranking and an eight game win streak. The Canes were surrounded by question marks after a sub par outing at Boston College. All eyes were tuned in for the potential upset.
Instead the world saw an annihilation as the Canes rolled 59-0. Miami was potent in every aspect of the game. Clinton Portis got his 132 yards and a touchdown. His backup Frank Gore scorched the Orange for 153 yards in the second half alone.
Ken Dorsey spread the ball all over the field, hooking up with six different receivers and putting up 224 yards and four touchdowns to his zero interceptions.
The defense swarmed. Phillip Buchanon had the game of his career returning an interception 76 yards for a touchdown and recovering an early fumble that lead to a touchdown, setting the tone for the afternoon. Buchanon also recorded a 17-yard sack and returned a punt 59 yards in Miami's third shutout of the season.
The Canes smelled blood late in the 2001 season. The defense gave up a mere 10 points in the four game stretch that ended with Syracuse. A week later a revenge statement was made when No. 12 Washington took a 65-7 beating in Miami. It was abundantly clear that the upperclassmen on this team were not leaving Coral Gables without a National Championship. Every game was a one game season. Every outing a statement was made.
It is written in stone – if they Canes win out, they are in. Unlike last season, there will be no waiting until the last minute to determine a worthy opponent. No. 2 Ohio State completed their 13-0 regular season and are booking Tempe reservations as I type. They took care of business, albeit ugly at times. The Buckeyes are in.
One must hope these 2002 Canes know how close, yet how far they are from a shot at another championship. Approaching the final two games with the right mindset will be no different than any day at the office. Arrogance, complacency, or an attitude that they are already "in" and the next 120 minutes will be an uphill battle.
This Saturday the Orangemen will suit up a team that lost all but two offensive starters – and one of them (R.J. Anderson) will most likely be on the bench. While an inexperienced bunch, they weren't starters in the last three losses to the Canes. There can be a sense of optimism in that. On defense, only five starters return. While LB Clifton Smith could be called their biggest playmaker, the biggest responsibility will lie on the shoulders of senior punter Mike Shafer. If the Orange think they have a shot, Shafer needs to have the game of his life. Give Miami a short field and you can turn this one off at halftime.
Deep in the heart of a 32-game win streak and two games from a trip to Tempe, does Miami really need any extra motivation? Shouldn't the prospect of being the first Hurricane team to record consecutive titles be enough? If not, break out some game footage from November 28th, 1998. Let these current Canes have a look at a somewhat recent dark day in Miami history. A day when a two loss Hurricane team headed into the Carrier Dome with a BIG EAST Championship and an Orange Bowl berth in mind. A day that ended with a 66-13 loss – Miami's worst beating since the 1944 season.
It was a sixty minute Orangemen party that afternoon and the Canes weren't invited. Donovan McNabb made mince meat of the Miami defense. The SU offense amassed 318 yards on the ground, 80 in the air and seven touchdowns combined. The lead was 24-7 after the first quarter and the game should've been called at halftime with the Orangemen up 45-7.
Miami hasn't lost to Syracuse since but that afternoon showed that nothing should ever be taken lightly. While Nunes (1999) nor Anderson (2000 & 2001) have experienced any success against the Canes, that dreary November day in 1998 gave ‘Cuse fans something to hang their hope on.
The battle cry for the 2001 Canes was "dominate" – and that they did. The 32.2 points per game average win margin is a Miami best. The 512 points scored and the eight defensive touchdowns also broke previous UM records. The Canes also led the nation in pass defense, scoring defense and turnover margin. This was domination at its finest and when it was all said and done the 2001 Miami Hurricanes might have been the best in the school's storied history.
The mantra for 2002 appears to be "results." The Canes haven't tallied one shutout this season. They have looked all world at times – Florida, Boston College and Tennessee are quick to come to mind. But there have also been moments of extreme complacency – most notably Connecticut, West Virginia and Rutgers. Luck? All good teams experience it and Miami is no exception. A Xavier Beitia field goal sailing wide left is the sole difference between 10-0 and 9-1.
Many have looked for that breakout game all season but it isn't going to happen in the next two games. While the 2001 Canes were out to make a statement on the scoreboard, the 2002 Canes are merely concerned with the wins/losses column. A one point win means no more than a 21-point win. You almost have to wonder if the BCS's removal of margin of victory has anything to do with Miami's lack of focus on the scoreboard.
Syracuse has had their bright spots this season, but shouldn't look for one this weekend. Moving the ball against the Canes will be near impossible. A brand new offensive line will be dominated for sixty minutes by a potent and nasty Miami defensive line. Nunes and or Anderson will be running for their lives for the better part of sixty minutes. Pressure on the quarterback is key as the Orangemen have a pretty good running game in Walter Reyes. Reyes is 75 yards away from being the fifth running back in SU history to amass 1,100 yards in a season.
One would prefer to see the Canes drop an extra man in the box to stuff the run and force an inept quarterbacking tandem to beat them, but it hasn't happened yet this season and probably won't be in the game plan this weekend either. Reyes might get his yards, but it won't be enough to get Syracuse the win.
Two games away from Tempe. Miami knows this. They hear the chatter. They know Oklahoma is gunning for that second invite should the Canes stumble. Ohio State has made it clear they want Miami. To be the champs, you have to beat the champs… or so they are saying. Better be careful what you're wishing for, Buckeyes. Come Saturday you'll be one step closer to getting your wish.
Until then it is all about Syracuse and just another day at the office for the Canes.
Miami40 Syracuse 17
Born and raised in Miami, FL and a Grassy.com guest columnist since 1995, Chris Bello now resides in San Diego, CA. Feel free to send your comments or to contact him for potential writing assignments at firstname.lastname@example.org