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Original Issue

The Big Winners

In pummeling Tennessee, Miami reasserted itself as the team to beat in the race to the national title

Bear a grudge? Us? Oh, no, insisted the Miami Hurricanes last Saturday evening. Such pettiness would be beneath us. Yet in drilling Tennessee 26--3 in Knoxville, the Hurricanes had delivered their most dominating performance of the season--and a powerful statement: When we decide to apply ourselves, the game won't be close.

Had they drawn motivation from their demotion in the rankings earlier in the week? Oh, no, none whatsoever, said the Hurricanes. Don't believe them. After somnambulating through most of a desultory win over Rutgers on Nov. 2, Miami slipped a spot in the BCS poll, to No. 3. That dip raised the possibility that the 2001 national champions could finish the 2002 regular season undefeated yet be shut out of the title game.

So we stunk it up for a while in New Brunswick, some Hurricanes griped privately. We still won 42--17, and in so doing extended the nation's longest winning streak--the third longest since 1950--to 30 games. Our reward: to be leapfrogged in the BCS by Ohio State.

Was this injustice on your mind, quarterback Ken Dorsey, going into the Tennessee game? "It really wasn't," said Dorsey, a senior, who was coolly efficient, completing 18 of 35 passes for 245 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. "We know [our BCS ranking] doesn't matter till the last game of the season is over."

It was easy for Ken to be Zen: Before they left the field at Neyland Stadium, he and his teammates knew that Oklahoma had lost at Texas A&M. Should Miami and 11--0 Ohio State now win the rest of their scheduled games, they'll play for the national championship in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 3. The tidiness of this arrangement struck Hurricanes coach Larry Coker as improbable. "It was what, 10 days ago [when there were] all those unbeaten teams with nowhere to go?" he said.

No one doubts that Miami is the most talented team in the country. Dropping the Canes to No. 2 in the AP poll--they've since been restored to the top spot--was the voters' way of punishing them for playing down to their opposition, for failing to make our jaws drop. The big difference in the BCS formula this year was supposed to be that it doesn't take into account margin of victory. While the computers don't, the human voters do.

"This time of year it's about style points," said Miami defensive line coach Greg Mark the day before the Tennessee game. This spot-on observation raised the question, What had become of the suffocating style of defense played by the Hurricanes early in the season? The secondary, coached by Mark Stoops (younger brother of Sooners coach Bob Stoops), was supposed to be the trouble spot. The Hurricanes sent a trio of defensive backs to the NFL after last season and replaced them with a freshman and two sophomores. The result: Miami leads the nation in pass defense.

Up front, where the Hurricanes are studded with future pros like Jerome McDougle, Vince Wilfork and William Joseph, they had struggled of late, surrendering 991 rushing yards in the four games leading up to Rutgers. Explanation, please.

"It was little stuff," says senior defensive tackle Matt Walters, who had six tackles and a sack against Tennessee. "It was guys lining up a yard or two wide, or a little too deep. The way our defense is designed, people have to hit the gap at the right time. We were coming in at bad angles, missing the tackle. Guys were trying to do a little too much."

One of the reasons for this, suspected defensive coordinator Randy Shannon, was a diminished sense of accountability. When they did screw up, Shannon says, "guys weren't telling each other, 'That was my mistake.'" Without that communication, he says, "players don't know what happened, so they start taking chances."

At a meeting in the team hotel last Saturday, Shannon challenged his charges to hold Tennessee under 200 yards of total offense. They didn't help their cause by giving up a 78yard run on the second play from scrimmage. Junior strong safety Maurice Sikes blitzed into the wrong gap, and Volunteers tailback Cedric Houston was on his way.

Three good things came of it for Miami. With a stunning burst, redshirt freshman cornerback Kelly Jennings overtook Houston, riding him down at the four-yard line. The Hurricanes' defense held, forcing the Vols to settle for a field goal. Afterward, Sikes could be seen going up and down the sideline, tendering apologies to anyone who would listen.

Miami's defense has officially recovered its mojo. Tennessee eked out 140 yards--and zero points--the rest of the way. Ravaged with injuries this season, the Vols lost three more starters on Saturday, including quarterback Casey Clausen, who spent the second half on crutches. "Not good offensively," said Tennessee head coach Phil Fulmer afterward of his team. "Couldn't block anybody." On days the wind blows east to west in Knoxville, Volunteers fans have been known to point out that "it could just be Vanderbilt sucking down in Nashville." On Saturday the wind blew out of the southwest, and it was the Vols' turn to suck.

On the other hand, Miami may simply have been that good. The Hurricanes looked much sharper offensively than they did during most of the past month. This was in part a delayed reaction to a speech delivered to the team on the eve of the Rutgers game by New York Giants linebacker Micheal Barrow, a former Hurricanes All-America. "He talked about how dealing with success can be even tougher than dealing with losing," recalls left guard Sherko Haji-Rasouli. Barrow's address resonated with Haji-Rasouli and center Brett Romberg, fifth-year seniors who entered the program on the heels of Miami's last losing season, 1997, when the Canes went 5-6. "Coming off that season we were in the film room at all hours," says Haji-Rasouli. "Right now we're a tremendously conditioned team, but I think somewhere along the way we lost our sense of urgency, lost a little bit of our edge."

While he and Romberg made it their business to spread the gospel of urgency, what really got the Hurricanes' attention was getting knocked down in the BCS. "Guys don't want to talk about it," says Haji-Rasouli, "but that motivated us. Now we're back with that hunger, with that edge."

You want edge? Visit Dorsey after the game at his stall in the visitors' locker room. Even as he has emerged as a Heisman Trophy front-runner (along with teammate Willis McGahee, who rushed for 154 yards and a touchdown against the Vols), the senior has become a popular target for criticism. "I've definitely had to become better this year at not reading newspapers," he says. "Not everybody likes me."

His detractors point out that he has completed 54.9% of his passes in 2002, down from each of his previous two seasons. They make the point that his arm is not as powerful as those of some of the Hurricanes' legendary quarterbacks--Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar, Vinny Testaverde--most or all of whose records he has broken or will break. The critics say he isn't even the best player in his own backfield.

Really? If McGahee goes down, Miami will find someone to get yards on the ground. If they lose Dorsey, who is the quarterback? Can the Hurricanes win a national title with Derrick Crudup? All Dorsey has done is go 35--1 as a starter in his career, preside over a 31-game winning streak, throw 78 touchdown passes and earn the absolute confidence of his teammates.

Sitting by his locker an hour after the game, Dorsey artfully sidestepped a Heisman discussion as he signed baseball caps for Tennessee state troopers. "The biggest award I can get," he said, "is going to battle with the guys on this team. My focus is winning games, and if people don't like me for winning, that's their problem."

It was a powerful statement following a powerful statement.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL FRAKES TWO GOOD McGahee, the most consistent Cane, muscled his way to 154 yards and a touchdown.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID BERGMAN POCKET PROTECTORS Playing with a new urgency, Haji-Rasouli (74) and his mates gave Dorsey time to tear up the Vols.

Says Dorsey, "The biggest award I can get is going to battle with these guys."