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Feeling Fiesta

UM 56, VA. TECH 45: Willis McGahee scores 6 TDs and Miami earns chance to defend national crown.

By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 8, 2002

[AP photo]
Miami running back Willis McGahee has every reason to dance after rushing for 205 yards.
MIAMI -- The touchdowns came so easily, the big plays so common, nobody at the Orange Bowl ever really fretted about the outcome. Did they?

The final score does not suggest dominance, merely the way the Hurricanes play football this season: scintillating one moment, sloppy the next.

A 56-45 victory over Virginia Tech on Saturday might be viewed in different ways, but its ramifications cannot be denied: the No. 1-ranked Hurricanes completed a 12-0 regular season, earned a spot in the Jan. 3 Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State and will attempt to win their second straight national championship and sixth overall.

As the Buckeyes (13-0) know, how you get there is not really relevant.

"It has to be the best feeling in the world," said UM receiver Andre Johnson, the co-MVP of the Rose Bowl victory over Nebraska in January along with quarterback Ken Dorsey. "Not too many players get to do this two years in a row. I can't even describe it.

"It was a whole lot harder this year because once you have won the national championship, everybody is gunning for you. That's what we got this year: everybody's best."

UM extended its winning streak to 34, tying Penn (1894-96) for the sixth-longest in NCAA history. The all-time best is 47 by Oklahoma (1953-57).

Coach Larry Coker has yet to lose a game, running his record to 24-0. The last team to win consecutive national titles was Nebraska in 1994-95.

"It's very difficult to go back-to-back," Coker said. "We lost 11 players to the NFL, had a tougher schedule, and still got it done. I am very proud."

Though the Hurricanes again had their share of miscues and letdowns, there was no denying the lethal threesome of Dorsey, Johnson and tailback Willis McGahee, whose six rushing touchdowns set UM's record. McGahee, a redshirt sophomore, had a career-high 205 rushing yards on 39 carries.

"McGahee is the best back I've ever seen, ever played with," said center Brett Romberg said. "He always does his job. You know if you just give him the littlest bit of room, he'll make his own hole. There's no words to describe him."

He scored on runs of 1, 4, 3, 10, 1 and 31 yards, the last putting UM ahead 49-21 about five minutes into the third.

Johnson, who caught a 49-yard touchdown in the first quarter, finished with six receptions for 193 yards. He became the second UM receiver with 1,000 yards in a season. In his final game in the Orange Bowl, Dorsey completed 12 of 20 passes for 300 yards and two touchdowns and improved his record as a starter to 38-1.

But the Hurricanes made things interesting for the crowd of 76,108 when, seemingly set to put the game away in the third, they tried to get cute on the goal line and saw a trick play backfire.

UM led 49-21 and got the ball at the Virginia Tech 15 after a blocked punt. After two plays gave them first and goal at the 1, everybody expected McGahee to get the ball for a seventh touchdown. But McGahee came out of the game, Jarrett Payton came in. Payton took a handoff from Dorsey, then threw back across the field to his quarterback.

Instead of a touchdown for Dorsey, however, Virginia Tech defensive back Willie Pile picked off the pass and returned it 96 yards for a touchdown. Instead of a 56-21 lead, UM led 49-27 after a missed PAT.

"We went brain-dead," Coker said of the play.

The Hokies added a field goal and another touchdown to cut it to 49-37 after three.

And the 18th-ranked Hokies (9-4), who at one time this season climbed to third in the polls but had dropped three of their past four, were not going away.

"We knew it was going to be a tough game," Tech quarterback Bryan Randall said. "We just wanted to come in and be spoilers. We wanted to come out and hit them in the mouth. We never thought the game was out of reach."

The Hurricanes had similar struggles this season against West Virginia and Florida State, always managing to win.

"I don't think it's a lack of focus," defensive end Jerome McDougle said. "Some times, people aren't always on the same page. But we fixed that. We're rolling now."

The Hurricanes gave themselves the breathing room they needed early in the fourth, riding the shoulders of McGahee, who rushed for 27 yards. Dorsey's 11-yard pass to tight end Kellen Winslow meant a 56-37 lead.

A late touchdown by Virginia Tech was only in keeping with the game, and this season, for UM.

"I never played so many full football games," said Romberg, a senior. "Everybody was bringing their A-plus game. There was nothing we could do about it. It says a lot about our football team, our ability to keep our composure for four quarters."

In 26 days, as long as the result is the same, the Hurricanes will take it.

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