Nebraska vs. Miami

Although the particulars are hazy, an old cliché makes the following case: betray me once and it's your fault, betray me twice it's mine. That sums up nicely the essence of rivalries: beat me once and it's of little consequence. Beat me twice - especially under extreme circumstances - and it's on.

Although the particulars are hazy, an old cliché makes the following case: betray me once and it's your fault, betray me twice it's mine. That sums up nicely the essence of rivalries: beat me once and it's of little consequence. Beat me twice - especially under extreme circumstances - and it's on.

Following that logic, Colorado, Texas and Kansas State all joined Oklahoma as modern-era Husker rivals. Colorado, of course, is the latest addition. Remember the kid crying in the stands at the Colorado game? That was me in the late 1970s as the mighty Missouri Tigers and some guy named George Shorthose took Nebraska the distance one fateful day.

So traumatic was the Iowa loss of 1979, I went outside with my Nerf football and single-handedly vanquished the treacherous Hawkeyes (represented by the undersized neighbor kid) exacting revenge for the Big Red. At the time, both became temporary rivals for no other reason than they beat the Big Red.

As the years passed and Barry Switzer further threatened my fragile psyche, my skin grew proportionately thicker as the Plodding Farm Boy Huskers became a plodding 4.3-forty, old-fashioned option attack and lethal 4-3 defense that routinely thrashed opponents in the 1990s. It all culminated in one very warm and fuzzy memory: Steve Spurrier grimacing and spiking his visor in disgust as Frazier and Company laid 62 (suddenly a painful number) on hapless Florida in the 1995 Fiesta Bowl.

What would follow - bitter losses to K-State in 1998, Texas in 1996 and 1999 - all seemed meaningless amid three national titles in four seasons. Despite such colossal Husker meltdowns like the 1992 Miracle of Marv Seiler at Iowa State and the recent "Rocky Mountain Horror Show," (Lincoln Journal-Star, Nov. 24, 2001) I remain confident, a mere shadow of the boy exposed to "Helicopter Howard" Schnellenberger.

That's right, just when I was learning to live on my own and eat solids again, the specter of the swaggering, leering, white-clad Hurricane looms. Howard, Jimmy and Dennis are gone, but it is still the Hurricanes and it's still Miami and Nebraska in a title game again. And with 10 meetings, three national titles decided between them and a five to four series advantage favoring the Huskers, this too is a rivalry.

But it's not your big brother's South Florida nightmare. Finally, the game will be played in the Rose Bowl not the Orange Bowl and Nebraska promises to fill those storied stands with 70,000 Red-clad Loons. And this time around the cast of character seems decidedly unlike Hurricanes of yore.

The talk might be trashy (Hurricane players have mysteriously lamented Colorado's fate and reminded the Plodding Farm Boy Huskers they are no longer playing high school ball) but by comparison, these Hurricanes are downright … genteel.

Fullback Najeh Davenport's turn-ons are magazines and the dramatic arts. Afterall, this graduate student's major was theater. And what of junior quarterback Ken Dorsey? With his dependable haircut and "aw-shucks" demeanor, he looks as if he should be hoisting 4-H not Heisman trophies and tending pigs, not pigskins.

To top it all off, senior tackle and "Academic Heisman" winner Joaquin Gonzalez actually shunned the ivy of Harvard (and certain financial success) for gridiron glory at Miami. Someone, please someone, bring back Bennie Blades and Micheal Irvin, I need to loathethese Hurricanes.

But I can't, they are too likable. The avuncular head coach Larry Coker paid his dues in the former Big 8 with stints at Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Instead of ripping off their helmets, some Hurricanes now do jumping jacks in the endzone as evidenced by running back Clinton Portis against Washington. And these Canes have done what no team that matters could do in 2001; they won big and they squeaked by but they won. All of their games (as did Harvard, Gonzalez must be kicking himself).

And these Canes, like their fearsome predecessors are good. They follow a championship recipe: stout defense and an explosive offense with depth to spare. Some pundits have even been as bold to say their second-string defensive line could start at most schools, including Nebraska. So what awaits the Huskers?

Offense:
It all starts with a very, very good offensive line and there, it begins with massive tackle and Outland Trophy winner Bryant McKinnie. At 6'9, 335 pounds, McKinnie is without peer physically in the Big East and perhaps the nation. The senior from Woodbury, NJ, anchors a line that has allowed less than 10 sacks all season while facing All-Americans in Syracuse's Dwight Freeney and Washington's Larry Triplett.

On the other side resides Gonzalez, a mere pup at 6'5", 292 pounds. The senior from Miami is a four-year starter and has allowed only two sacks in his last 23 games. Less heralded but no less effective are premier run blockers RG Martin Bibla and C Brett Romberg. Left guard Ed Wilkins replaces the injured Sherko Haji-Rasouli and is perhaps the weakest link on a stellar offensive line.

How stellar? Consider that if McKinnie - who had arthoscopic knee surgery on Dec. 3 - is unavailable, sophomore Vernon Carey, a former top national offensive lineman prospect overall by The Sporting News, fills in. At 6'5" and a whopping 363 pounds, Carey certainly has the physical attributes and simply needs time to develop.

At tailback Miami is loaded. Freshman and hometown hero Frank Gore is an explosive back with a tremendous burst and excellent vision, attributes that helped him rack up 2,953 yards and 34 as a senior at Coral Gables High School. The 5'10" 190 pounder is also versatile, catching four score logging 301 receiving yards that same year. In his first season at Miami, Gore led the Big East with an average 9.1 yards-per-carry while scoring 5 touchdowns and averaging 51 yards a game.

Coming out of high school, Gore and redshirt freshman Willis McGahee, another super recruit at 6'1" and 225 pounds, were expected to challenge for the top spot. But that honor has gone to junior Clinton Portis. All Portis has done bridging the gap between former UM back James Jackson and Gore and McGahee, is provide the Canes with a sturdy, reliable rusher averaging 109 yards per game in 2001, third best in the Big East.

Usually words like "sturdy" and "reliable" signal euphemisms for "thoroughly average." But Portis, a Florida prep track standout at Gainesville High School, averages 5.5 yards a carry and provides a backfield receiving threat. That he has held off Gore and McGahee is testament enough to his grit and ability. The versatile fullback Davenport recovered from a serious knee injury last season and possesses both power (325 bench press), speed (4.3 time in the 40) and agility (33-inch vertical leap).

Football pundits love to knock Eric Crouch's abysmal seven TD passes this season but equally embarrassing are the 2000 season rushing numbers put up by his Rose Bowl counterpart, Cane quarterback Ken Dorsey. Four yards and one touchdown on five carries. Those numbers, football fans, aren't deliberate but accidental.

But it's ridiculous to pursue this line because just as Nebraska runs, Miami and Dorsey pass. In fact, the pass is as much a part of their history as the option is Nebraska. The junior from California brings to mind another Nebraska foe from last season, Oklahoma quarterback Josh Heupel. Although the Heisman candidate put up astronomical numbers behind that mammoth line, the book on the rangy Dorsey (6'5", 210 pounds) is that he possesses the intangibles and makes the Canes' offense click with tremendous accuracy and habit of not making mistakes.

Dorsey, the Big East conference's passing and total offensive leader, has thrown only nine interceptions this season while accounting for 23 touchdowns and 2,652 yards. On the flipside, Dorsey has rushed for only three yards this season.

When he does throw, he often looks to fellow junior and tight end Jeremy Shockey. At 6'6" and 236 pounds, Shockey is cut from the same pass-catching tight end mold as Nebraska's Tracey Wistrom. On the season, Shockey has 519 yards receiving and seven touchdowns.

Combined with the explosive Davenport, Shockey gives Dorsey a pair of speedy underneath options creating tantalizing mismatches against opposing linebackers. On the outside the Canes - from a pro set or one-back formation - boast hallmark Miami speed and skill in deep-threat wide receivers Andre Johnson and Daryl Jones. Johnson averages 18.4 yards per catch and 62.0 yards per game while third receiver, Kevin Beard, averages 16.4 yards per catch and 37.2 yards a game.

Defense:
As much as the line is the heart and soul of the offense, the strength of the Canes' defense lies on its secondary. All-American safety Edward Reed (6'0", 198 pounds) had more interceptions than breakups this season (nine to seven) and standout corner Phillip Buchanon is a smart, speedy cover corner who has recorded seven interceptions this season.

Almost overshadowed by Buchanon and Reed is clamp-down corner Mike Rumph, the Canes' biggest (6'2" and 190 pounds) and most experienced man-coverage corner. Against the Huskers, Rumph and Buchanon will more than likely play man-to-man leaving Reed and fellow safety James Lewis to support run defense.

If the Huskers prove less than efficient through the air, their greatest hope is running between the tackles and taking advantage of the Canes' 40th-ranked rush defense. Tackle William Joseph need not look up to anyone nationally with 8.5 sacks and 16 lost-yardage tackles despite often being double-teamed.

Although the Canes' possess depth and skill at tackle, they are somewhat inexperienced with freshmen Vince Wilfork and undersized with Matt Walters at only 265 pounds. Rush ends Jerome McDougle and Andrew Williams are excellent pass-rushers but, of course, will see little need for that against the Huskers.

Linebacker D.J. Williams was the nation's top recruit two years ago but is still learning the system after playing some offense last season. Fellow linebacker Jonathan Vilma is undersized at only 211 pounds but is a stalwart for the Canes averaging 8.2 tackles a game.

Special teams:
The Hurricanes' only other potential weakness other than run-defense is their kicking game. Virginia Tech blocked a punt and kick against the Canes highlighting a season-long weakness in kick protection. But kicker Todd Sievers is solid making 21 of 26 field goals this season and returner Buchanon is one of college football's best, averaging 15 yards a return and scoring twice this season.

Summary:
Few believe Nebraska belongs in the Rose Bowl and few believe the Huskers can stick with the Hurricanes. It's the same old rap; the Huskers are too slow, one-dimensional and struggle when they fall behind. It's clear, after reading some preliminary remarks made by some Hurricanes, they had not watched film on Nebraska and bought into the tired national stereotype. But Nebraska excels as the underdog in the post-season (see the 1993 and 1994 Orange Bowls and the 1995 Fiesta Bowl) and possesses skill players equal if not better than Miami's.

If the Huskers are to rely on luck and intangibles, perhaps they need them most on defense. In their last outing, they were gangster-slapped by an exceptional Colorado offensive line that, yes Victor Rodgers, "kicked they (the Nebraska defense) a$$es." Though Colorado was exceptional that day, they don't compare to Miami.

Even without McKinnie (who, I would assume, would play on crutches if needed) the Canes pass-protect like fiends. Obviously they run block exceptionally well but they pass more and thus max protecting, not trapping, is their specialty. In short, it's still likely the Huskers have already seen the best run-blocking team they will meet this year.

Against the pass, the Huskers match up well with Keyuo Craver and DeJuan Groce and linebacker Scott Shanle on Shockey. And where Nebraska's safeties were criticized for being, shall we say too much of "finesse" players against Colorado, the speed of Willie Amos is better suited to the Miami offense than it is the bruising Buff attack.

Of concern is the defensive line, a unit that was simply average this season. It's unlikely Jeremy Slechta, Casey Nelson, Jon Clanton, Chad Kelsay or Demoine Adams will make the Canes look bad on offense. However, the Canes are not as physical running the ball as Colorado, a team that lived by the power-running game this season, making another defensive debacle like the one in Boulder is unlikely.

It's when the Hurricanes are on defense that the game becomes intriguing. Virginia Tech torched the Hurricanes for 110 yards on two option plays and allowed Hokie tailback Kevin Jones 160 yards. The Hurricanes have not seen a line and rushing attack the caliber of Nebraska's this season and if there are weaknesses, they will eventually be exploited. If the Huskers can run effectively, the need to pass on downfield routes could be diminished and more success could be earned on screens and quick slants, negating the best secondary Nebraska has faced this season.

Much has been made of team speed and Miami's supposed wealth of it and Nebraska's lack of team speed. But at most skill positions, the teams match up well and this game will likely be controlled at the line of scrimmage. Anyone remember what happened there the last time these two teams met in this bowl rivalry?


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